Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Are you a human? Do you have access to the internet? Then you may already know about Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist” who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.
But for the uninitiated, Dr. Emoto gained international fame from the film What the Bleep Do We Know?!, which praised his experiments on the cellular structure of water. Maybe you remember this dramatization, in which a science docent describes Emoto’s experiments, and a creepy guy creeps up on Marlee Matlin to explain everything, just in case she’s a complete buffoon.
During his studies, Emoto separated water into one hundred petri dishes and assigned each dish a fate: good or bad. The good water was blessed or praised for being so wonderful (“Oh look at you wonderful little water droplets! One day you shall be a water slide!” I imagine him saying). The bad water was scolded (“May you become that gross grey sludge that builds up under a Zamboni,” he maybe said). Each petri dish was frozen, allegedly under similar conditions. Lo and behold, when the frozen water was viewed under a microscope, the water which had been praised and valued had rearranged itself into beautiful crystalline structures. The “bad” water was as ugly as ice crystals can get (which, to be honest, isn’t that ugly), showing a lack of symmetry and more overall jaggedness. Emoto started to get a little giddy with his findings, trying new methods like taping the words “Adolf Hitler” to a glass of water and seeing what happened (allegedly, the water was very ugly).
He even had a team in Tokyo transmit their thoughts to some water across the world, to California, in a double-blinded study. According to the abstract, “crystals from the treated water were given higher scores for aesthetic appeal than those from the control water.” We are all made up largely of water and, as Emoto explained, that is why this study is so important and the findings are so serious.
Except that they aren’t. As Stanford University professor Emeritus William Tiller (also featured in What the Bleep) pointed out after the film’s release, it is extremely easy to manipulate the crystalline structure of water, especially by adding contaminants or tinkering with the cooling rate of the water. In Dr. Tiller’s words, “In Dr. Emoto’s experiments, [supercooling] was neither controlled nor measured, a necessary requirement to be fulfilled if one wanted to prove that it was the new factor of specific human intention that was causative.” Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.” In one portion of the book, Emoto recalls watching a priest perform incantations into a lake, causing the lake to become more and more clear. And then things get really weird:
The crystals made with water from before the incantation were distorted, and looked like the face of someone in great pain. But the crystals from water taken after the incantation were complete and grand... A few days after this experiment, an incident was reported in the press. The body of a woman was found in the lake, and when I heard about this I remembered the crystals created from the water before the prayer, and remembered how the crystals had looked like a face in agony. Perhaps through the crystals, the spirit of this woman was trying to tell us something. I would like to think that her suffering was alleviated in part by the incantation.
As What the Bleep faded to memory, Emoto and his water evaporated too. But recently, Emoto has made a comeback in the form of a viral video meme of people carrying out yet another Emoto water experiment, now in their own kitchens. The experiment, seen here in its original form, had Emoto pouring water over cooked rice in three different beakers, then labeling one “Thank You!,” one “You’re An Idiot,” and leaving one unlabeled (the control).
Every day for one month, Emoto spoke whatever was on the bottle to the rice inside (since this is about intentionality, it doesn’t matter whether the other rice “overhear”). And after thirty days, what happened? Well, the “Thank You!” rice “began to ferment, giving off a strong, pleasant aroma.” The “You’re An Idiot” rice turned mostly black, and the control rice “began to rot,” turning a disgusting green-blue color. Well, the jig is up when your control rice rots, right? Apparently not. According to Emoto, the “ignored” rice fared the worst because negligence and indifference are the absolute worst things we can do to water, rice…and ourselves. He goes on to explain that “we should converse with children,” a piece of monumental parenting advice that is sure to forever be attributed to this rice experiment. “Indifference,” our narrator tells us, “does the greatest harm.”
Egad! All I’ve ever been doing with my rice is ignoring it! It sits in my pantry, quietly waiting for use, when I should at the very least be calling it an idiot, to stave off some rotting, and at best thanking it for its existence. But did others get the same results? Well, the internet is on it, and people are doing this experiment in their homes and featuring their results on YouTube. Some found that the results roughly replicated Emoto’s, like this couple, who didn’t use a control, and this fellow who didn’t pour water over his rice at all, causing obvious questions to arise. Those who followed the experimental protocols most diligently, and ensured that all their materials were sterile, like this guy, found that all of their sterilized rice samples came out about the same, and that any mold came from bacterial contamination, either from the jars themselves, or from the top of the rice being exposed to air as it was cooling.
So I decided to try it myself. I got out three jars, and labeled two of them “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot,” and left the third blank. I was tempted to think of this third jar as a control, but since Dr. Emoto decided that controls are merely victims of neglect, I thought I would add another type of control: a fourth jar, bearing the name “Michele Bachmann.” Every day, I would read to Jar #4 a quote from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Depending on the rice’s political affiliation, perhaps it would be inspired, or perhaps it would commit suicide.
For the rice, I chose Trader Joe’s organic brown rice (tasty; I recommend). I measured one cup of cooked rice for each jar, and added one cup of water on top of it. Then, for thirty days, I talked to my food.
Everyone looks pretty happy and healthy. No discernible difference between any of the rice family.
The whole family is looking good (check out their new digs, with an antique 1950s bread box behind them). I got these pretty ribbons for “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot.” I thought they deserved them. As you can see, all the kids are looking pretty identical. Today, I read Baby Bachmann this nice quote from her namesake: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out…under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." No mold, no dark spots. I would still eat every one of my children.
The whole damn family is starting to seem a little too happy, you know? Suspiciously happy. It’s a little Brady Bunch in here, how clean-cut these rice kids are. I am going to have to work a little harder at yelling at “You’re An Idiot.” I scrunch up my face and point at him and yell, but he never seems to react.
I’m starting to regret becoming a parent. These kids just sit there like bumps on a log. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? No one’s molding, no one’s turning colors, no one smells. I try to really play favorites, too. “Thank You!” is getting kisses now and gentle caresses, and “You’re An Idiot” is screamed at like Ricky screams at Lucy after she buys a hat. And yet, nothing. Baby Bachmann is getting a workout, too. Today, she heard her namesake’s retelling of her success at the 2012 Republican presidential debates: "I was very proud of the fact that I didn't get anything wrong that I said during the course of the debates." She who shall not be named (the unlabeled rice jar) is being outright ignored like the mistake she is.
Hallelujah! Something is happening! One of my kids is finally sick. Who do you think it is? The negligence victim? The one I yell at all the time? The one who gets ambiguous political quotes seemingly written by a cartoon?
It’s “You’re An Idiot.” He’s finally showing a tiny patch of green mold on one corner of the top of his ricey body. It’s not large, maybe a centimeter across, but it’s there. My little boy has become a man. But, not to be outdone, “Thank You!” is showing a bit of battle scars. A couple of her grains have turned blackish-brown. I think she’s on her way.
God, I hate “You’re An Idiot.” Every time I talk to him, I find myself screaming at him. He’s such an idiot! Anyway, his green mold has about doubled in size, no doubt because of my screaming and not at all because the mold is exposed to air. “Thank You!” is turning a little blackish around the edges of a few of her grains, as is “Michele Bachmann.” My completely ignored child, who we’ll call “Uglo,” is actually faring the best. A single grain has turned a sort of brown-green color, but overall, her body is just as healthy as the day she was born.
Finally, the day has come. For thirty days, I have cheerfully thanked, “Thank You!,” angrily yelled at “You’re An Idiot,” confusingly read Bachmann quotes to “Michele” and completely ignored “Uglo.”
So, what happened?
According to Dr. Emoto, “Uglo” should turn out the worst (rotting, in his experiment). But as you can see, our neglected rice is just fine. Apparently, you can ignore your kids completely and nothing will happen…if we’re still using rice as an experimental stand-ins for kids.
Here’s “You’re An Idiot”:
He should be second-worst (completely black in Emoto’s experiment), due to all that negativity going his way. Well, he was the only one to mold, though the top of the rice in his jar ended up being the most exposed to air of all four samples.
Here’s “Thank You!”:
“Thank You!” should be fermenting, turning yellow and making sweet, delicious smells. As you can see, she is anything but yellow. In fact, she seems to have lost some of her pigment during the experiment, since she and the others started out brown and are now nearly white.
As for fermenting? She’s certainly doing that, but the smell is anything but delicious. Like the others, it’s downright disgusting.
And here’s our old friend, “Michele Bachmann”:
“Michele” should be either disgusting or delicious, depending on her party affiliation and reaction to her namesake’s quotes. But as you can see, she looks nearly identical to “Thank You!” and “Uglo.”
In the end, it appears that Dr. Emoto’s assertion that intention can affect soppy rice doesn’t hold water. I can’t help but wonder if the well-meaning re-creators of this experiment on the internet didn’t help their rice along, exposing the neglected or hated rice to more air, changing the jars around to put them in different temperature or humidity conditions, or performing other tricks in an effort to support a well-intended but ultimately self-evident point: that being ignored or belittled hurts.
When all is said and done, apparently it was only Emoto’s voice that had the power to ruin water. To be fair, Moses had the same problem.
 Emoto’s doctorate is in Alternative Medicine, from the Open University of Mumbai. According to their website, the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.
 Radin, Dean, PhD. “Double-Blind Test of the Effects of Distant Intention on Water Crystal Formation.” Published by EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 2006. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830706003272
 Tiller later explained that he didn’t quite understand what What the Bleep was all about when he gave his interview.
 Tiller, William A. “What the BLEEP Do We Know!?: A Personal Perspective.” Vision in Action, Volume Two, 2004. Pg. 18. http://www.via-visioninaction.org/via-li/journals/What_the_Bleep_Perspectives_Vol2_No3-4.pdf
 Hall, Harriet. “Masaru Emoto’s Wonderful World of Water.” Originally published by Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2007. Retrieved on RedOrbit.com, February 2014. http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1144934/masaru_emotos_wonderful_world_of_water/
 Emoto, Masaru. “The Hidden Messages in Water,” Atria Books, 2004. Pg. 90-91.
 To his credit, he doesn’t appear to have ever marketed Emoto Blessed Water, showing either real sincerity or a lack of entrepreneurial creativity. I would like to suggest the name H2OMG.
 There is some disagreement over whether Emoto used dry or cooked rice, in his various versions of this experiment. The rice appears cooked in the documentary, and so I used cooked rice. Presumably this wouldn’t matter too much, as long as all samples received the same treatment.
 He did still cook his rice, which means it contained some additional water.
 Astute scientific readers will note that my two control jars have slightly different tops to the other two jars. They are right. Although I made certain that my “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot” jars were identical, as they are the most important to compare, I admit there could have been some slight variation in the conditions inside because of the different kinds of tops. However, they were all basically airtight and differed in size only slightly.
Note: This article involves an ongoing investigation. Identifying details are removed or obscured, and names are changed.Image source: Wikimedia Commons
I sat with the older members of a group of twenty-eight people. Twenty were standing. I was the only guest. This was my second meeting with them. They often get together to pray, lay hands on the sick, and communicate with spirits. The spirits don’t talk back, but that doesn’t stop them. Those around me had their hands upturned “to let the energy flow through them.” They chanted rhythmic phrases like “om-rama-om” and “hom-hom-bama-om” energetically but with an eerie peacefulness. No one had told me much about what to expect or what I should do.
“Just observe,” said Keith, the leader. “The first time, we just ask you to soak it in.”
The chanting swirled around me like palpable energy, seeming to fill the air with a dense warmth. Or maybe that was the incense; I’m not sure.
About half an hour passed this way before I joined in. My lips quivered as they met the words around me. It didn’t feel like a conscious decision. I didn’t tell my mouth to start moving. It was coaxed by the moment. The chant existed to connect humanity to the rest of the living world, and it was working. It was connecting these strangers to me.
It wasn’t the first time I had chanted. My first chanting session was in meditation class during college. Yes, meditation class. I also took a class called “Dreams and Interpretations,” in which my not-so-psychic instructor guessed that my in-the-closet male best friend and I were in love. That instructor used chants to help us clear our minds and envision the spiritual world around us. The chants usually lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes—nothing like the two hour session I was in for tonight. But this was a new group, and I was investigating it alone. In a room full of believers, I was the only one who didn’t yet buy what they were selling. The woman next to me leaned in and whispered.
“Is this your first time here? I’m Ethel.”
“Yes, hi, I’m Carrie.”
“Turn your hands further up, like this,” she said, holding her hands up to her chest, out-turned in the universal symbol for halt. “That will help the energy flow better.”
I did. I brought my hands closer to my chest, draining the blood out of them. I closed my eyes and let the chants flow through me, trying not to judge them or think about them but just to experience what this room full of believers was experiencing. I stayed that way for about half an hour, listening to the chants and incantations. They were full of energy, nothing like the dull repetitive prayers of a middle-America church service.
And then something unexpected happened.
At first, it was just a lightheadedness. Then I felt like I was out of my body, floating above it. I couldn’t tell if my hands were near my face or far, far away. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were open or closed. I heard sounds no one else appeared to hear and saw vague, distant images: a pink diamond, a rooster with a pyramid for legs, an elderly woman in a revealing gown. At one point I snapped to attention and found that my upper body had been rhythmically swaying in a semi-circle. I wasn’t awake, and I wasn’t asleep. I was in a trance.
For over half an hour, I stayed in this state between wake and slumber. It felt much like the few moments before drifting into sleep except that it never progressed to actual sleep, nor threatened to. It was like being in a place where my rational mind could not reach me, and even thinking about it didn’t snap me out of it.
When the chanting stopped, my body jerked to attention, and my eyes flew open. I was back in the room with everyone else. Those who were standing shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. They had been holding their hands up by their chests for over an hour and were getting tired. When we broke for a short intermission, I stood up slowly, not sure my body would follow me. I joined the other attendees at the water cooler where everyone quaffed several cups. The chanting had given them all dry mouth.
“You’re new here,” said a young woman in an orange, silky robe.
“Yes,” I said, “I’m Carrie.”
“Ahh!” she said, looking around her knowingly. Then she slipped back into the service. I stood alone with my paper cup, wondering if she had heard of me before, and if so, from whom. Maybe my energy shot over to her while it swirled around in warm waves above my head? Or maybe Keith had mentioned me. Both seemed plausible at the moment.
We returned to the worship space, ready to chant. I found my seat where I could watch the robed devotees stand in their formation: four rows of chanters, all confidently standing in their prearranged foot positions and staring straight ahead, almost as if saluting a flag or being called to attention by a drill sergeant. Quickly, the group fell back into the pattern: chanting, holding their palms toward the center of the room, monotonously calling out the mantras that would connect them to our creator, our earth, and to the aliens with whom we share our universe.
I wanted to leave my body. I couldn’t wait to see that rooster again. My heartbeat sped up, and the back of my hands tingled with excitement for the trance. If I could do this at will, I would never be bored again! Public lectures, DMV appointments, long business meetings—as long as no one ever looked at me, I would be golden. Saved through the power of euphoric trance.
But it never came. The trance didn’t return, possibly because I was so excited to have it back. It was like an honored guest at a party who didn’t want to be there at all. The college freshman invited to their older relatives’ dinner party, asked incessantly about their plans for the future. That trance wanted nothing to do with me anymore.
For the rest of the service, I listened to the chanting and considered what I might have been experienced earlier. It certainly felt a lot like falling asleep—that process of drifting into unconsciousness, able to snap to at any moment. Psychologists call this hypnagogia, and it is the state in which some people experience lucid dreaming and even disturbing experiences like Old Hag Syndrome.
After the service, I told Ethel about my experience.
“It felt like a trance,” I said. “I felt like I left my body and couldn’t feel where my hands were. My upper body started circling from my waist, and I had no control over it. It was euphoric. Do you think that was a trance?”
She looked at me with a sympathetic cock of her head, politely smiling with the corner of her mouth.
“Maybe it was a mini-trance,” she said, “but I think you might be overthinking it.”
Then she hung up her robe and left.
A popular gambit in cryptozoology is to say that a cryptid is a real animal that was presumed long extinct but has lived on undetected. Here is why that sounds sciencey, but is bad reasoning.
“From what I have heard of the animal, it seems to me that it can only be some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurus. As the stories come from so many different sources, and all tend to substantiate each other, I am almost convinced that some such reptile must still be in existence. At great expense, therefore, I sent out an expedition to find the monster, but unfortunately they were compelled to return home without having proved anything, either one way or the other. [...] Notwithstanding this failure, I have not relinquished the hope of being able to present science with indisputable evidence of the existence of the monster.”
From Beasts and Men: Being Carl Hagenbeck's Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals, 1912. An abridged translation by H.S.R. Elliot and A.G. Thacker, p 96-7.
The book From Beasts and Men, containing the excerpt above about a report of a living dinosaur, was published the same year as Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Hagenbeck, a zookeeper and exotic animal merchant, speculated that there existed a real “lost world” in the unexplored areas of Africa. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Magin, 2010) The idea that a lone survivor or a population of living fossils is out there to be found by courageous explorers is accepted by many of today’s self-styled cryptozoologists (those who research ethno-known, but not scientifically verified animals). Buoyed by the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938, a rare, lobe-finned fish that was presumed extinct for sixty-six million years, these specialty researchers sustain their wishful thinking that more fabulous finds are out there, even dinosaurs and other iconic prehistoric beasts.
The most famous cryptid claimed to be a survivor of ages long past is the Loch Ness Monster. One of the most popular explanations you will hear proposed for Nessie in the media is that it is a plesiosaur, a marine reptile that disappeared from the fossil record sixty-six million years ago with other large fauna at the same time as pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and dinosaurs (land reptiles) went extinct. There are many and various good reasons to conclude Nessie is NOT a plesiosaur (which is best left to professionals to explain). Besides the fact that the creature has not been shown to be an actual mystery, the plesiosaur hypothesis, specifically, is ridiculous and should be abandoned, as should other suggestions of prehistoric survivors. I’ll explain why this idea should be killed with fire, and in the process, I’ll tell you about the dozens of other extinct animals said to still be seen alive in modern times. Thanks A.C. Doyle!The Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm (PSP)
Doyle was inspired by the wilds of South America to create his prehistoric plateau populated by dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and ape-men in The Lost World. Many works of literature and film also capitalized on this popular theme. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Coleman, 2007) Fiction is a powerful influence on culture just as culture influences fiction. Paleontological discoveries were all the rage in the late nineteenth century as skeletal remains were extracted by the tons from the American West, described, classified and mounted in museums. The public was astounded at the size and strangeness of these new, real monsters. It did not seem implausible that animals of the distant past could yet survive in the unexplored places of the world (Magin, 2010) especially if you were unfamiliar with the immensity of geologic time. This is exactly when the idea of still living dinosaurs emerged.
In the early days of the intrepid natural explorer to the Dark Continent, there had been rumors of monstrous inhabitants known from strange track ways. It is commonly noted that Central Africa was a particularly fine candidate for a “lost world” since it has not changed much climatologically or geologically. But, indeed it HAS. That parts of the world remain untouched by natural changes is a myth.
The stories about what created the tracks were made up whole cloth by natives or from the explorers themselves. The term “dinosaur” to describe the monsters was tacked on in the twentieth century as the knowledge about the past existence of real monsters spread. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) One classic “living dinosaur” legend is that of Mokèlé-mbèmbé—the “half elephant, half dragon” monster of the Congo. According to the chapter on Mokèlé-mbèmbé in the cryptozoology chronicle, Abominable Science (Loxton and Prothero, 2013), Carl Hagenbeck initiated this legend as noted in my opening quotation. His “credible” reports were from Rhodesia (now defined as Zambia and Zimbabwe). But the modern Mokèlé-mbèmbé legend is from Lake Tele in the Congo basin, some 1200 miles away. Did it migrate? Well, sort of. African dinosaur lore appears to have been distilled from several creative stories from different locations. Early in the cultural history of dinosaurs, brontosaurs (now officially named Apatosaurus) were seen as swamp-dwelling animals. Similar dinosaur-like cryptids such as the Nsanga and Chipekwe were said to be so gigantic they frightened elephants. There were tales of the plate-backed Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu creature said to resemble a stegosaur. The Emela Ntouka and the Ngoubou were described with a frilled head and horns like ceratopsian dinosaurs. What ELSE could they be except dinosaurs? It sounds scientifically conservative to extrapolate from animals that we know once existed. Instead, it's actually lazy thinking; there is no evidence to support such speculation when we have better evidence that there are no longer living populations of these animals. Even our evidence about dinosaur habitat has evolved. They are no longer assumed to be tropical swamp dwellers. The modern evidence clashes with these legends created under the old pop-culture ideas of dinosaurs.
Paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish regularly uses the term “Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm” (PSP) to address this cryptozoological habit of resurrecting extinct animals as potential explanations for cryptids. In a blog post from 2006 for the popular science blog Tetrapod Zoology, he talks about how cryptozoology writers are still endorsing this idea and why it was actually an unscientific conclusion to make. To suggest that these mystery animals were not only real (with their descriptions taken at face value, a dangerous assumption to make), but surviving descendants of an extinct population was unjustifiable speculation. As a corollary, one must also conclude that the fossil record is unreliable. Though it IS imperfect, he notes, it's really not as bad as people think it is (Naish, 2003), especially for marine animals. Naish picks apart the PSP in his most recent book on speculative zoology, The Cryptozoologicon (Conway, et al. 2013), calling it a “boring” explanation used just because a carcass or description of a cryptid somewhat resembles what we think the extinct animals would look like today. Moreover, some cryptozoology researchers not only assume some cryptids are prehistoric survivors but they speculate on how further evolution occurred to the present time—a marine animal adapts to fresh water, it might have grown spines, perhaps ancient whale lineages became more serpent-like (and account for sea serpent sightings), etc. Such speculation is fun and entertaining, but to suggest they are genuine is ludicrous to those who actually study the fossils of those animals.
Interestingly, many who subscribe to the paradigm that extinct animals still survive have strong creationist tendencies. They assume, irrationally, that by finding a living dinosaur, evolution will somehow be disproven. They often won't hide their anti-evolution aims (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) since wealthy Christian backers will fund those expensive expeditions to the Congo to find proof of living fossils. These expeditions are not headed by zoologists, but by men who will spread God’s word to the natives while on the track of monsters. The media, unaware of the excursive, non-zoological agenda of these trips, will treat the explorers the same as a bona fide biologist that they almost never are. In 2012, a group of American kids with no scientific training attempted to raise money for a Congo trip to find the dinosaurs and giant spiders they heard about in questionable legends. They succeeded with funding but were woefully ill equipped and ill prepared for the adventure, which was scuttled upon arrival. The interesting observation is all they had needed to raise the funds was an exciting story and a boatload of hope (or perhaps faith). They seemed to be dismissive (or ignorant) of the more likely explanation for these incredible monster stories from Africa—that of manufactured myths to entertain the tourists. The natives told past visitors incredible tales that got positive reactions. It is clear that researchers showed illustrations of dinosaurs that elicited confirmation of what they wanted to hear. The legend grew but evidence was lacking.The Implausible Plesiosaur
Plesiosauria is an order of astounding aquatic reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic era from 205 to 65 million years ago, contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Though there are more than a hundred named species, Plesiosaurus is the genus/species1 most familiar to non-scientists, having a barrel-like body and a long neck ending in a small head full of teeth. Front and rear flippers allowed it to “fly” through the water. It does not appear to have been capable of significant land locomotion but that does not stop speculation a modern plesiosaur version could crawl around the shore and scare the local inhabitants.
Besides being the most exciting explanation proposed for Nessie, a relict plesiosaur is also the favored explanation for the cadborosaurus and other lake and near-shore monster sightings. A body, called the Naden Harbour carcass, was found in the stomach of a whale in 1937 on the Canadian Pacific coast. It had a plesiosaur-like outline—long neck, small head. Another “possible” plesiosaur cited by proponents of the PSP is that of the stinking carcass hauled up by the fishing crew of the ship Zuiyo Maru near New Zealand in 1977. In both cases the carcass was in an advanced state of decomposition but there is no good evidence to conclude each was anything other than the remains of a known animal. They are often referred to as possible modern plesiosaurs.
One tale from the early twentieth century illustrates the typical cryptozoological characteristic of unreliable and downright contradictory descriptions of mysterious cryptids. In 1922, the New York Times ran a story about a professor who received two reports of a plesiosaur still alive in a lake in the Patagonian Andes. The reports sent to Clementi Onelli ranged from a “black shadow” swimming away to that of an animal with a head like a horse and long neck held above the water surface. Within weeks following the media reports, the animal was quite oddly hypothesized to be a glyptodon (an extinct giant armadillo-relative) or a megatherium (giant ground sloth, also extinct). How one animal managed to encompass all these diverse forms is a wondrous achievement! Expeditions to the area were failures (perhaps because they didn't know what they were supposed to find). (Arment, 2004)
Cryptozoologists love the story of the coelacanth fish that supposedly went AWOL in the fossil record for sixty-six million years.2 The deep sea, they knowingly state, can conceal many mysteries including small populations of prehistoric survivors. Dr. Naish, however, points out several reasons why the coelacanth hide and find is not comparable to plesiosaur fossils. Although still often touted in non-professional crypto-books that coelacanth fossils are unknown past the K-Pg extinction2 event, this appears to be false. (Naish, 2010) Paleogene fossil remains of coelacanths were poor and easily overlooked by paleontologists. It’s possible that, as is the case with many uncatalogued fossils, there are additional samples sitting unidentified in museum archives.
Large aquatic vertebrates have generally excellent fossil records. (Naish, 2003) Animals such as plesiosaurids, ichthyosaurids, mosasaurids, and primitive whales are all groups that were “theorized back to life” by imaginative cryptid writers. (Conway, et al. 2013) The oceans (and even some deep lakes, like Loch Ness, and large rivers) are also thought by a few optimists to still hide zeuglodonts (ancient whales), thalattosuchians (long-snouted crocs resembling sea serpents), pliosaurs (short-necked plesiosaurs), large armored fish called placodonts, giant sea scorpions (eurypterids) and archelon, the four-meter long sea turtle we last find at the K-Pg extinction boundary. The idea of an ancient giant shark still alive was such a fantastic idea that Megalodon got his own TV special on Animal Planet in 2013 complete with faked footage to suggest that a toothy monstrous menace still roamed the sea. The fake documentary influenced the opinion of many viewers who now entertain the belief that it's still out there. If any of these animals indeed survived past their presumed extinction, we should find representative fossils. We don't. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.
As much as I would LOVE to believe plesiosaurs are still around, Nessie is not a plesiosaur or any other prehistoric survivor. No known group of vertebrates has been found alive after disappearing completely from the fossil record some sixty-six million years ago (Naish, 2003). Therefore, paleontologists can be confident that these sea-faring reptiles are indeed extinct.Living Pterosaurs
It is possible to hide in the ocean for a long time but you certainly will have difficulty remaining secretive if you are a giant flying critter. Yet, there are many reports of people observing enormous flying creatures they describe as “prehistoric-looking.” There are stories of huge condor-type birds, with wingspans comparable to a plane, in parts of Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Illinois. (Hall, 2004) Some speculate these birds were Teratorns that went extinct in the Pleistocene era. A less bird-like Thunderbird is known from the American West. People claim to see airborne animals that resemble pterosaurs.3 They are described as huge, dragon-like, winged creatures, having leathery skin instead of feathers and sometimes a tooth-filled beak and a head crest. Pterosaurs lived and died along with dinosaurs. The attained astonishing diversity and monstrous size but left no descendants.
A Fortean Times piece cites a story from 1873 where a steamship crew off Micronesia caught a black, furry, “savage” animal resembling “the pterodactyl of the antidiluvian ages.” Actually, it sounds more like a large fruit bat. But they didn't recognize it. (Magin, 2010) This story is remarkably similar to the encounter reported by (crypto)zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson of the animal called the Olitiau in the southern Cameroon that attacked his crew. He described it as having “dracula” wings. Again, it most likely was a fruit bat but speculation continues that it was a pterosaur because that makes for a really neat story.
The legendary kongamato of Zambia and the Congo is described as possibly an existing rhamphorynchoid pterosaur—having a long thin tail ending in a diamond shaped rudder. Acrobatic flying lizards that glow with bioluminescence as they flit about the rivers in Papua New Guinea are known as ropen. Popular cryptid writers describe the ropen as being a potential living pterosaur. However, some birds bear a remarkable similarity to rhamphorynchoids in flight. Long legs trail behind looking like thin tail with a rudder. Frigate birds have angular wings and a long tail that cause them to be mistaken for pterosaurs in flight. Revealingly, ornithologists and even casual bird watchers have not cataloged sightings of pterosaurs. Living pterosaurs most certainly no longer patrol our skies.Sources: left, right Still Roaming the Land
Tales of prehistoric survivors come from all continents and there are almost too many names and varieties to keep track of. (Eberhart, 2002) Besides the dinosaurs from Africa, here is a little taste of the range of prehistoric animals still reported alive.
Megalania, fifteen- to twenty-foot long lizards in Australia and New Guinea that died out 20,000 years ago, is speculated to account for sightings of the Burrunjor.
Thylacoleo was a marsupial lion of Australia that is suspected to be behind reports of the “Queensland Tiger” or yarri. It has been suggested, without proper evidence, that this animal is a mainland version of the extinct Tasmanian tiger (thylacine).
Also in Australia, a giant wombat, possibly the legendary Bunyip, is connected to diprotodonts, extinct for 7,000 years.
In South America, rather unreliable reports surfaced of sightings of saber-toothed cats. And the fearsome Mapinguari is reported in Brazil and Bolivia as a giant ground sloth or giant anteater last known from the Pleistocene.
The waheela, a bear-dog creature resembling an extinct amphicyonid, is claimed to still exist even though the fossil record shows it died out five million years ago in North America. Imaginative authors speculate that waheelas account for reports of dogmen or modern werewolves in the northern United States.
Reports of the Nandi bear, or Ngoloko, a cryptid out of Africa has been hypothesized to be an Atlas bear, a giant baboon, a short-faced hyena, or a chalicothere (herbivore that lived 40–3.5 million years ago) most due to its characteristically short rear legs and longer front legs.
Of course, we can't forget the species of prehistoric primates still said to roam the earth. A common proposed explanation from Bigfoot believers is that today’s North American Sasquatch is a relict Gigantopithecus (which paleontologists know only from teeth and jaw parts). The Asian versions of wild men have been speculated to be hominids that we assumed were long gone, perhaps even Neanderthals. But use of modern DNA and measuring techniques squash that idea; samples of supposed modern remains or descendants of these creatures have been tested and come back as modern human.
There are several mentions of Ice Age animals still alive. Once again, 12,000 years may not seem that long, but it really is for not finding living specimens of really large and obvious mammals. In February of 2012, The Sun (UK) tabloid published a photo and video (on the web site) declared to be evidence of a wooly mammoth traversing a river in Russia. It was blurry, the features indistinguishable, and the source dubious—a known hoaxer who runs a weird news website. Still, a real live mammoth in Siberia seemed plausible to many. Mammoths survived in dwarf form on Wrangel Island of the coast of Alaska for 10,000 years after they disappeared from the American mainland. Could a small population have continued on living in the remote arctic wilderness?
Unfortunately, no. In short order, the Siberian mammoth video was discovered to be a computer graphics hoax—film of a real river in Russia with a fake mammoth added in.
Once again, the hopeful evidence disintegrates.
There is a great desire, even by non-cryptozoologists, to discover a lost world full of surprises. The eyewitness accounts, legends, creative interpretation of traditional art, and the human propensity to convert fantasy into reality is not enough to support the idea that long-extinct prehistoric animals are still with us. Sure, there is a chance we might discover another Lazarus taxon4, but it won’t be the fanciful flying dragons, the elephant killer, or massive toothy sea monster. Still, when people really want to believe it, they sometimes actually see it. Therefore, these stories, for they are nothing greater than that, are passed along in pop culture. Some believe they are true. We can continue to study and admire these prehistoric animals as evolutionary treasures and as characters in science fiction, but we cannot resurrect them with just wishful thinking and dubious claims.References
Arment, C. (ed.) (2004) “The Patagonian ‘Plesiosaur’ Expedition of 1922.” North American Biofortean Review 6(2) No. 15, pp. 3-11.
Coleman, L. (2007) “Prehistoric Cryptofiction.” Cryptomundo blog.
Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M., and Naish, D. (2013) The Cryptozoologicon Volume 1.
Eberhart, G. (2002) Mysterious Creatures.
Hall, M.A. (2004) Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds
Jeffreys, M.D.W. (1944) African Pterodactyls. Journal of the Royal African Society (pp. 72-74). Reprinted at http://www.strangeark.com/reprints/ptero.html.
Loxton, D and Prothero, D. (2013) Abominable Science.
Magin, U. (2010) “Living Pterodactyls”. Fortean Times No. 267 October 2010.
Naish, D. (2003) “On Plesiosaurs, Basilosaurs, and Problems with Reconstructions.” North American Biofortean Review 5(3) No. 12.
Naish, D. (2006) “On those pesky prehistoric survivors: A call to arms.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.
Naish, D. (2010) “A sea monster poster for the 9th European Symposium of Cryptozoology.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.
Shuker, K.P.N. (1995) In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.
Smith, D.G. and Mangiocopra G. (2004) “An 1900’s Prehistoric Amazon Monster – An Explorers Encounter, Cryptofiction or a Combination of Both.” North American Biofortean Review 6(1) No. 14, p 19-27.Footnotes
1. There is currently only one species listed in the genus Plesiosaurus, P. dolichodeirus.
2. The K-Pg, Cretaceous-Paleogene, extinction occurred sixty-six million years ago. Previously called the K-T extinction (T for Tertiary), this is the most popularly known giant extinction event since it killed off all non-avian dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and pterosaurs as well as many other animal groups, and created new environmental niches for small mammals and birds to exploit. The current coup d’etat for the mass death was a large meteor impact in the Yucatan that affected environmental conditions worldwide.
3. Commonly but incorrectly called “pterodactyls” which are one suborder of pterosaurs, the more proper term refers to the entire range of pterosaurs including rhamphorynchoids.
4. Known as “Lazarus taxon,” many documented findings exist of animals that appeared to be extinct but were later found alive. The record seems to be monoplacophores, mollusks that were known from fossils 380 million years ago but were discovered alive in Costa Rica in 1952.
“Are you into Bigfoot stuff?”
The man’s question is genuine, and not directed at me but at a man standing next to me. I’m confused, because they are standing on either side of a table covered in drawings of Bigfoot, surrounded by people wearing Bigfoot T-shirts and hats that read “Gone Squatchin’,” and they are at a Bigfoot convention.
“You bet,” the other man enthusiastically replied.
Thank god, I think. If he were not into Bigfoot stuff, he was about to have a truly lousy day.
A friend and I had arrived at the Chautauqua Lake Bigfoot Expo ready for a full day of exciting Bigfoot action. The schedule ran from noon until 6:15pm and was packed with talks like, “Bigfoot Eyeshine—What Is It?” and “What Would Sasquatch Do?” which I imagined as a lecture on top-down morality and ethics as espoused by a shy, possibly fictional woodland creature.
We showed up early to get good seats for the first lecture (“Sasquatch in Virginia” by Billy Willard of Sasquatch Watch. Yes, the Billy Willard of Sasquatch Watch), but first we had to pick up our tickets, and then the ticket seller stamped our hands. I looked at my stamp.
“For deposit only,” I read out loud, “We Wan Chu Cattages.” I looked at the woman behind the counter and asked, “Cattages?”
In lieu of explanation, she handed us two slips of paper with our seat assignments on them.
We walked into the large, mostly empty conference hall and attempted to figure out the seating arrangements. There were dozens of large, round tables and some had numbers on them, but they didn’t seem to correlate to the numbers on our slips. After wandering around for a few minutes, a very helpful conference worker offered to show us to our seats. After wandering the room for a few more minutes, it became clear that she also didn’t understand the seating arrangements.
I made a joke about our seats being harder to find than Bigfoot. She smiled politely and directed us toward an empty table near the back.
The crowd was pretty much what I expected of a Bigfoot convention, except for the fact that that Bigfoot wasn’t there. Most of the audience was made up of adults, with a few families with children sprinkled in. There was a lot of flannel and a bit of camo.
The talks began late, giving us time to check out the vendors, which were mostly artists specializing in the subject of Bigfoot. My favorite was a man who painted lovely Bob Ross–esque landscapes, each with a Bigfoot hidden somewhere in the foliage.
Finally, the presentations started. All conferences are boring by nature, regardless of their topic, but this one had a few highlights, as when Billy Willard pointed out that some people report disorientation and sickness when in the presence of Bigfoot, meaning that Bigfoot most likely produces some kind of infrasound.
“Do you think Bigfoot’s an interdimensional creature?” asked an audience member during Q&A. That question is probably the best I’ve ever heard at a conference—and I’ve been to a lot of conferences.
“No,” Willard replied, “because I’m a skeptical person.”
The presentations dealing with Bigfoot investigations were, for the most part, a series of descriptions of near-misses. Food was set out, and in the morning a bite had been taken off of it but no one had thought to set up a camera, so it may well have been a deer that rudely ate the food obviously meant for Bigfoot. Cameras that were set up to catch Bigfoot just showed an endless supply of deer, foxes, raccoons, cats, squirrels, and owls, but nary a primate to be seen. And even when footage did supposedly show Bigfoot, even the Bigfoot expo crowd was a bit skeptical.Bob Gimlin autographed a photo to Joe Nickell:
"To Joe Nickell
You are wrong
Bob Gimlin, of the famous “Patterson-Gimlin” Bigfoot footage, was the keynote speaker, and the audience was refreshingly irreverent. One of the first questions was a man who wanted to know why Gimlin headed home after capturing a few seconds of shaky footage instead of chasing after the Bigfoot. Gimlin hemmed and hawed and shuffled his feet and didn’t really answer the question.
Another audience member pointed out that Gimlin said he viewed the video footage the day after he filmed it. “How did you get it processed so quickly?”
Gimlin said he has no idea, but a friend had connections in the film processing industry. The audience member looked disappointed.
The audience’s skepticism raised my spirits a bit, but Gimlin dashed them when talking about Bob Heironimus, the man who claims he was in the gorilla suit. Gimlin expressed a desire to go to Heironimus’s house “and give him a cowboy butt-kicking,” to which the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. It felt wrong and out of place in the midst of a conference where Bigfoot was overwhelmingly described as a gentle giant. Bigfoot would never kick anyone’s butt.
The other highlight of the day was Steve Kulls’s talk, “What Would Bigfoot Do?” which turned out to be a study of Bigfoot’s behaviors and not necessarily his ethical concerns. It was fascinating to hear a detailed analysis of the behavior of a creature that has never been proven to exist. Cryptozoologists often compare Bigfoot to real animals that actual scientists discover living in the wild, like the olinguito, the first carnivorous mammal species discovered in the Americas in the past thirty years. But, you’d have been hard pressed to find a biologist giving an overview of the olinguito’s specific behaviors and personality prior to it actually being discovered.
Some of Bigfoot’s behaviors described by Kulls included crossing roads, nodding, staring at women hanging laundry, staring at children, aggression, screaming, throwing rocks and logs at people for entertainment, and knocking on wood (possibly for luck).
Other talks added a few more behaviors to the list, like Bigfoot’s preference for apples and the fact that he may be bioluminescent.
In terms of appearance, I learned that Bigfoot is red, white, black, brown, or silver and he is anywhere from five to ten feet tall. Also, he smells like fish or like nothing, and he sounds like a monkey chattering, a baby squealing, a man groaning, or a lion roaring.
One might suspect that Bigfoot can sound, smell, and look like anything at all, which makes him surprisingly easy to find but surprisingly difficult to prove you’ve found.
After listening carefully to all the talks and considering their evidence, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that there probably isn’t a Bigfoot, but looking for him sounds like a lot of fun, anyway. Searching for Bigfoot requires trekking into the wilderness to camp and stalk and hang out with your friends and use cool technology like night-vision goggles and thermal-imaging cameras. It’s all the fun of hunting without the downer of killing something at the end.
It’s the perfect hobby, provided you’re not overly concerned with small details like actually catching the thing you’re looking for. In that case, you might want to try bird-watching.
Neuroscience and its new brain imaging tools are great achievements of modern science. But they are vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs.
You’ve seen the headlines: This is your brain on love. Or God. Or envy. Or happiness. And they’re reliably accompanied by articles boasting pictures of color-drenched brains—scans capturing Buddhist monks meditating, addicts craving cocaine, and college sophomores choosing Coke over Pepsi. The media—and even some neuroscientists, it seems—love to invoke the neural foundations of human behavior to explain everything from the Bernie Madoff financial fiasco to our slavish devotion to our iPhones, the sexual indiscretions of politicians, conservatives’ dismissal of global warming, and even an obsession with self-tanning.
Brains are big on campus, too. Take a map of any major university, and you can trace the march of neuroscience from research labs and medical centers into schools of law and business and departments of economics and philosophy. In recent years, neuroscience has merged with a host of other disciplines, spawning such new areas of study as neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, and neurofinance. Add to this the birth of neuroaesthetics, neurohistory, neuroliterature, neuromusicology, neuropolitics, and neurotheology. The brain has even wandered into such unlikely redoubts as English departments, where professors debate whether scanning subjects’ brains as they read passages from Jane Austen novels represents (a) a fertile inquiry into the power of literature or (b) a desperate attempt to inject novelty into a field that has exhausted its romance with psychoanalysis and postmodernism.
Clearly, brains are hot. Once the largely exclusive province of neuroscientists and neurologists, the brain has now entered the popular mainstream. As a newly minted cultural artifact, the brain is portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and tapestries and put on display in museums and galleries. One science pundit noted, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”
The prospect of solving the deepest riddle humanity has ever contemplated—itself—by studying the brain has captivated scholars and scientists for centuries. But never before has the brain so vigorously engaged the public imagination. The prime impetus behind this enthusiasm is a form of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an instrument that came of age a mere two decades ago, which measures brain activity and converts it into the now-iconic vibrant images one sees in the science pages of the daily newspaper.
As a tool for exploring the biology of the mind, neuroimaging has given brain science a strong cultural presence. As one scientist remarked, brain images are now “replacing Bohr’s planetary atom as the symbol of science.” With its implied promise of decoding the brain, it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will.
The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet.
Author Tom Wolfe was characteristically prescient when he wrote of fMRI in 1996, just a few years after its introduction, “Anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty-first century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.” Now we can’t look away.
Why the fixation? First, of course, there is the very subject of the scans: the brain itself. More complex than any structure in the known cosmos, the brain is a masterwork of nature endowed with cognitive powers that far outstrip the capacity of any silicon machine built to emulate it. Containing roughly eighty billion brain cells, or neurons, each of which communicates with thousands of other neurons, the three-pound universe cradled between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way. How this enormous neural edifice gives rise to subjective feelings is one of the greatest mysteries of science and philosophy.
Now combine this mystique with the simple fact that pictures—in this case, brain scans—are powerful. Of all our senses, vision is the most developed. There are good evolutionary reasons for this arrangement: The major threats to our ancestors were apprehended visually; so were their sources of food. Plausibly, the survival advantage of vision gave rise to our reflexive bias for believing that the world is as we perceive it to be, an error that psychologists and philosophers call “naive realism.” This misplaced faith in the trustworthiness of our perceptions is the wellspring of two of history’s most famously misguided theories: that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the Earth. For thousands of years, people trusted their raw impressions of the heavens. Yet, as Galileo understood all too well, our eyes can deceive us. He wrote in his Dialogues of 1632 that the Copernican model of the heliocentric universe commits a “rape upon the senses”—it violates everything our eyes tell us.
Brain scan images are not what they seem either—or at least not how the media often depict them. They are not photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look “in” the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actually representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by increased oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli, such as pictures of faces. The powerful computer located within the scanning machine transforms changes in oxygen levels into the familiar candy-colored splotches indicating the brain regions that become especially active during the subject’s performance. Despite well-informed inferences, the greatest challenge of imaging is that it is very difficult for scientists to look at a fiery spot on a brain scan and conclude with certainty what is going on in the mind of the person.
Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy, really. In such a fledgling enterprise, the half-life of facts can be especially brief. To regard research findings as settled wisdom is folly, especially when they emanate from a technology whose implications are still poorly understood. As any good scientist knows, there will always be questions to hone, theories to refine, and techniques to perfect. Nonetheless, scientific humility can readily give way to exuberance. When it does, the media often seem to have a ringside seat at the spectacle.
Several years ago, as the 2008 presidential election season was gearing up, a team of neuroscientists from UCLA sought to solve the riddle of the undecided, or swing, voter. They scanned the brains of swing voters as they reacted to photos and video footage of the candidates. The researchers translated the resultant brain activity into the voters’ unspoken attitudes and, together with three political consultants from a Washington, D.C.–based firm called FKF Applied Research, presented their findings in the New York Times in an op-ed titled “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” There, readers could view scans dotted with tangerine and neon-yellow hot spots indicating regions that “lit up” when the subjects were exposed to images of Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and other candidates. Revealed in these activity patterns, the authors claimed, were “some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.” Among those impressions was that two candidates had utterly failed to “engage” with swing voters. Who were these unpopular politicians? John McCain and Barack Obama, the two eventual nominees for president.
Another much-circulated study, published in 2008, “The Neural Correlates of Hate” came from neuroscientists at University College London. The researchers asked subjects to bring in photos of people they hated—generally ex-lovers, work rivals, or reviled politicians—as well as people about whom subjects felt neutrally. By comparing their responses—that is, patterns of brain activation elicited by the hated face—with their reaction to the neutral photos, the team claimed to identify the neurological correlates of intense hatred. Not surprisingly, much of the media coverage attracted by the study flew under the headline: “‘Hate Circuit’ Found in Brain.”
One of the researchers, Semir Zeki, told the press that brain scans could one day be used in court—for example, to assess whether a murder suspect felt a strong hatred toward the victim. Not so fast. True, these data do reveal that certain parts of the brain become more active when people look at images of people they hate and presumably feel contempt for. The problem is that the illuminated areas on the scan are activated by many other emotions, not just hate. There is no newly discovered collection of brain regions that are wired together in such a way that they comprise the identifiable neural counterpart of hatred.
University press offices, too, are notorious for touting sensational details in their media-friendly releases: Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion Center Found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love Found in the Brain!”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. To repeat: It’s all too easy for the nonexpert to lose sight of the fact that fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques do not literally read thoughts or feelings. By obtaining measures of brain oxygen levels, they show which regions of the brain are more active when a person is thinking, feeling, or, say, reading or calculating. But it is a rather daring leap to go from these patterns to drawing confident inferences about how people feel about political candidates or paying taxes, or what they experience in the throes of love.
Pop neuroscience makes an easy target, we know. Yet we invoke it because these studies garner a disproportionate amount of media coverage and shape public perception of what brain imaging can tell us. Skilled science journalists cringe when they read accounts claiming that scans can capture the mind itself in action. Serious science writers take pains to describe quality neuroscience research accurately. Indeed, an eddy of discontent is already forming. “Neuromania,” “neurohubris,” and “neurohype”—“neurobollocks,” if you’re a Brit—are just some of the labels that have been brandished, sometimes by frustrated neuroscientists themselves. But in a world where university press releases elbow one another for media attention, it’s often the study with a buzzy storyline (“Men See Bikini-Clad Women as Objects, Psychologists Say”) that gets picked up and dumbed down.
The problem with such mindless neuroscience is not neuroscience itself. The field is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science. Its instruments are remarkable. The goal of brain imaging, which is merely one of its tools, is enormously important and fascinating: to bridge the explanatory gap between the intangible mind and the corporeal brain. But that relationship is extremely complex and incompletely understood. Therefore, it is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants—fits of “premature extrapolation,” as British neuroskeptic Steven Poole calls them. When it comes to brain scans, seeing may be believing, but it isn’t necessarily understanding.
Some of the misapplications of neuroscience are amusing and essentially harmless. Take, for instance, the new trend of neuromanagement books such as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, which advises nervous CEOs “to be aware that anxiety centers in the brain connect to thinking centers, including the PFC [prefrontal cortex] and ACC [anterior cingulate cortex].” The fad has, perhaps not surprisingly, infiltrated the parenting and education markets, too. Parents and teachers are easy marks for “brain gyms,” “brain-compatible education,” and “brain-based parenting,” not to mention dozens of other unsubstantiated techniques. For the most part, these slick enterprises merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program. As one cognitive psychologist quipped, “Unable to persuade others about your viewpoint? Take a Neuro-Prefix—influence grows or your money back.”
But reading too much into brain scans matters when real-world concerns hang in the balance. Consider the law. When a person commits a crime, who is at fault? The perpetrator or his or her brain? Of course, this is a false choice. If biology has taught us anything, it is that “my brain” versus “me” is a false distinction. Still, if biological roots can be identified—and better yet, captured on a brain scan as juicy blotches of color—it is too easy for nonprofessionals to assume that the behavior under scrutiny must be “biological” and therefore “hardwired,” involuntary, or uncontrollable. Criminal lawyers, not surprisingly, are increasingly drawing on brain images supposedly showing a biological defect that “made” their clients commit murder. Looking to the future, some neuroscientists envision a dramatic transformation of criminal law. David Eagleman, for one, welcomes a time when “we may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation [and] eventually think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.” As this comes to pass, he predicts, “more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.”
But is this the correct conclusion to draw from neuroscientific data? After all, if every behavior is eventually traced to detectable correlates of brain activity, does this mean we can one day write off all troublesome behavior on a don’t-blame-me-blame-my-brain theory of crime? Will no one ever be judged responsible? Thinking through these profoundly important questions turns on how we understand the relationship between the brain and the mind.
The mind cannot exist without the brain. Virtually all modern scientists, ourselves included, are “mind-body monists”: they believe that mind and brain are composed of the same material “stuff.” All subjective experience, from a frisson of fear to the sweetness of nostalgia, corresponds to physical events in the brain. Decapitation proves this point handily: no functioning brain, no mind. But even though the mind is produced by the action of neurons and brain circuits, the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. There is nothing mystical or spooky about this statement, nor does it imply an endorsement of mind-body “dualism,” the dubious assertion that mind and brain are composed of different physical material. Instead, it means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological level. By way of analogy, if you wanted to understand the text on this page, you could analyze the words by submitting their contents to an inorganic chemist, who could ascertain the precise molecular composition of the ink. Yet no amount of chemical analysis could help you understand what these words mean, let alone what they mean in the context of the other words on the page.
Scientists have made great strides in reducing the organizational complexity of the brain from the intact organ to its constituent neurons, the proteins they contain, genes, and so on. Using this template, we can see how human thought and action unfold at a number of explanatory levels, working upward from the most basic elements. At one of the lower tiers in this hierarchy is the neurobiological level, which comprises the brain and its constituent cells. Genes direct neuronal development; neurons assemble into brain circuits. Information processing, or computation, and neural network dynamics hover above. At the middle level are conscious mental states, such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, knowledge, and intentions. Social and cultural contexts, which play a powerful role in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, occupy the highest landings of the hierarchy. Problems arise, however, when we ascribe too much importance to the brain-based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones. Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis.
The key to this approach is recognizing that some levels of explanation are more informative for certain purposes than others. This principle is profoundly important in therapeutic intervention. A scientist trying to develop a medication for Alzheimer’s disease will toil on the lower levels of the explanatory ladder, perhaps developing compounds aimed at preventing the formation of the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles endemic to the disease. A marriage counselor helping a distraught couple, though, must work on the psychological level. Efforts by this counselor to understand the couple’s problems by subjecting their brains to fMRIs could be worse than useless because doing so would draw attention away from their thoughts, feelings, and actions toward each other—the level at which intervention would be most helpful.
This discussion brings us back to brain scans and other representations of brain-derived data. What can we infer from this information about what people are thinking and feeling or how their social world is influencing them? In a way, imaging rekindles the age-old debate over whether brain equals mind. Can we ever fully comprehend the psychological by referring to the neural? This “hard problem,” as philosophers call it, is one of the most daunting puzzles in all of scientific inquiry. What would the solution even look like? Will the parallel languages of neurobiology and mental life ever converge on a common vernacular?
Many believe it will. According to neuroscientist Sam Harris, inquiry into the brain will eventually and exhaustively explain the mind and, hence, human nature. Ultimately, he says, neuroscience will—and should—dictate human values. Semir Zeki, the British neuroscientist, and legal scholar Oliver Goodenough hail a “‘millennial’ future, perhaps only decades away, [when] a good knowledge of the brain’s system of justice and of how the brain reacts to conflicts may provide critical tools in resolving international political and economic conflicts.” No less towering a figure than neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga hopes for a “brain-based philosophy of life” based on an ethics that is “…built into our brains. A lot of suffering, war, and conflict could be eliminated if we could agree to live by them more consciously.”
It’s no wonder, then, that some see neuroscientists as the “new high priests of the secrets of the psyche and explainers of human behavior in general.” Will we one day replace government bureaucrats with neurocrats? Though short on details—neuroscientists don’t say how brain science is supposed to determine human values or achieve world peace—their predictions are long on ambition. In fact, some experts talk of neuroscience as if it is the new genetics, that is, just the latest overarching narrative commandeered to explain and predict virtually all of human behavior. And before genetic determinism there was the radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner, who sought to explain human behavior in terms of rewards and punishments. Earlier in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freudianism posited that people were the products of unconscious conflicts and drives. Each of these movements suggested that the causes of our actions are not what we think they are. Is neurodeterminism poised to become the next grand narrative of human behavior?
As a psychiatrist and a psychologist, we have followed the rise of popular neuroscience with mixed feelings. We’re delighted to see laypeople so interested in brain science, and we are excited by the promise of new neurophysiological discoveries. Yet we’re dismayed that much of the media diet consists of “vulgarized neuroscience,” as the science watchdog Neuroskeptic puts it, that offers facile and overly mechanistic explanations for complicated behaviors. We were both in training when modern neuroimaging techniques made their debut. The earliest major functional imaging technique (PET, or positron emission tomography) appeared in the mid-1980s. Less than a decade later, the near wizardry of fMRI was unveiled and soon became a prominent instrument of research in psychology and psychiatry. Indeed, expertise in imaging technology is becoming a sine qua non for graduate students in many psychology programs, increasing their odds of obtaining federal research grants and teaching posts and boosting the acceptance rates of their papers by top-flight journals. Many psychology departments now make expertise in brain imaging a requirement for their new hires.
The brain is said to be the final scientific frontier, and rightly so, in our view. Yet in many quarters brain-based explanations appear to be granted a kind of inherent superiority over all other ways of accounting for human behavior. We call this assumption “neurocentrism”—the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain. From this popular vantage point, the study of the brain is somehow more “scientific” than the study of human motives, thoughts, feelings, and actions. By making the hidden visible, brain imaging has been a spectacular boon to neurocentrism.
Consider addiction. “Understanding the biological basis of pleasure leads us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction,” writes neuroscientist David Linden. This is popular logic among addiction experts, but to us, it makes little sense. Granted, there may be good reasons to reform the way the criminal justice system deals with addicts, but the biology of addiction is not one of them. Why? Because the fact that addiction is associated with neurobiological changes is not, in itself, proof that the addict is unable to choose. Just look at American actor Robert Downey Jr. He was once a poster boy for drug excess. “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger’s on the trigger, and I like the taste of gunmetal,” he said. It seemed only a matter of time before he would meet a horrible end. But Downey entered rehab and decided to change his life. Why did Downey use drugs? Why did he decide to stop and to remain clean and sober? An examination of his brain, no matter how sophisticated the probe, could not tell us why and perhaps never will. The key problem with neurocentrism is that it devalues the importance of psychological explanations and environmental factors, such as familial chaos, stress, and widespread access to drugs, in sustaining addiction.
Brain imaging and other neuroscience techniques hold enormous potential for elucidating the neural correlates of everyday decisions, addiction, and mental illness. Yet these promising new technologies must not detract from the importance of levels of analysis other than the brain in explaining human behavior. Ours is an age in which brain research is flourishing—a time of truly great expectations. Yet it is also a time of mindless neuroscience that leads us to overestimate how much neuroscience can improve legal, clinical, and marketing practices, let alone inform social policy. Naive media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.
Granted, it is only natural that advances in knowledge about the brain make us think more mechanistically about ourselves. But if we become too carried away with this view, we may impede one of the most challenging cultural projects looming in the years ahead: how to reconcile advances in brain science with personal, legal, and civic notions of freedom.
The neurobiological domain is one of brains and physical causes. The psychological domain, the domain of the mind, is one of people and their motives. Both are essential to a full understanding of why we act as we do and to the alleviation of human suffering. The brain and the mind are different frameworks for explaining experience. And the distinction between them is hardly an academic matter; it bears crucial implications for how we think about human nature, personal responsibility, and moral action.
This article is adapted from the authors’ new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Basic Books, 2013). Extensive notes for this article (five pages) can be found in the book.
A few notes about the article you are about to read: No psychics were paid for their services. For their protection, none of the psychics with whom I spoke are pictured in this article, and all of their names are changed. Nonetheless, the company which employs them is named. If you would like to contact them about what their psychics are saying to people who they think are cancer victims, you can contact them here.
The online psychic industry is a seemingly bottomless collection of clairvoyants, tarot card readers, psychic healers, and other people in purple outfits. Like its predecessor, the psychic telephone hotline, and its contemporary, the “internet modeling” industry (which involves less clothing and more talking than the more traditional modeling industry), online psychics typically charge several dollars a minute for personal encounters, with some charging as much as $200 for a 30-minute session, making seeing a psychic often as expensive as seeing a therapist.
Those who doubt the existence of psychic abilities point to the fact that clairvoyance would go against everything we know about science. But the vagueness of psychic powers poses a real problem when someone offers them for a price: when a psychic’s service cannot be pegged down by science, the practitioner can claim to do nearly anything... including curing cancer, ending suicidal depression, or bringing a lover back who is long, long gone. In fact, I once had a psychic tell me that my newly-ended four year relationship was “not over yet.” Fortunately for me and my ex, she was wrong.
But what happens when someone goes to a psychic for something really serious? I visited one of the most popular live-psychic sites on the internet, Oranum, and spent five hours speaking to thirteen of their psychics. Knowing I would never again have the patience for such a venture, I picked the boldest claim I could think of: I told each psychic that I had serious, life-threatening cancer. At first, that was all the information they got. But if asked, I was prepared with a back story: It was stage 3 ovarian cancer, and among other treatments, my doctor wanted to me undergo chemotherapy. I instead preferred, I said, “to find a spiritual solution.”
How many of the psychics would offer to help me skip medicine in favor of psychic healing?
The first psychic I spoke to said that she could not tell me to stop seeing my doctor. “That’s against the law, okay?” she said, looking directly in the camera, at me and the others who were tuned into her “channel.” We were all typing in a group, trying to grab her attention, but the word “cancer” had apparently won. Someone else in the group thought she was talking to them anyway.
“Why are you talking about cancer? Oh my god, do I have cancer?!” they asked.
I quickly left, satisfied that this psychic had refused to endorse my choice not to get real treatment from a real doctor.
The second psychic, a young woman with only two other people in her chat room, was eager to see a new screen name pop up in her chat. When I told her about my cancer, she stammered. “Oh, uh... Well...” I could see her arguing with herself silently. “Hold on,” she said, and then disconnected her computer. She didn’t sign on for the rest of the evening.
I was beginning to think that these “psychics” were almost on the up-and-up. Perhaps their employer had diligently told them not to tell people to forego lifesaving treatment in favor of unproven techniques. But then I met a psychic I will call Nancy.
Nancy was a dark-haired woman in her forties, who wore a grey shirt and Native American-inspired medallions. As she happily chatted with her twelve active chat room members, I attempted to edge in.
“Hello, can you help someone with cancer?” I asked.
“Yes, Melanie, he will come back to you! No, Kurt, I don’t have a husband. Aww, that’s sweet of you. Deborah, I doubt it but who knows? We could discuss it more in a private chat. Oh... Welcome, InnerEye.” That was me. “When did you find out about your cancer?”
I told her my story: that I had recently been diagnosed, but it was quite far along, and my doctor wanted me to undergo chemotherapy. I preferred spiritual solutions instead of medical ones, I said.
“Oh yes, I understand,” she said. “I can do a healing on you, but we have to go into private chat.” Private chat meant paying for her services. I declined.
“Come back tomorrow then,” she said. If you come to my free chat again, I will do one healing on you, and then you can come back for more.” I agreed and left. It was that easy to get someone to heal my cancer. Or at least, to promise to.
As it turned out, Nancy wasn’t alone. A man in his late forties called Nate (not his real name) was willing to help me, albeit cautiously.
“I have been told by a clairvoyant that I will have healing powers, but I don’t yet,” he said. He sat in his bedroom, in a purple shirt with his chest hair poking out of the top. Behind him, a golden sun and moon hung above a matching golden bedspread with a mysterious, locked wooden box atop it. There was probably a portal to Hell in it, but I didn’t ask.
Nate didn’t offer to heal me that night, but he did tell me to come back, and to keep my attitude up. “Carrie is really young,” he said to someone else in the chat, after I had said goodbye. “As long as her attitude is good, she’ll be fine.”
All in all, of the thirteen psychics I spoke to, nine offered to heal me privately, two said no, and two immediately disconnected their computers. The reason for the disconnections may have been hinted at in something Nate said to one of his regulars: “The people from Oranum come into our rooms and check on us, sometimes” he said. “They’re sticklers.”
But not such sticklers that the majority of psychics might be afraid to offer to cure my cancer, apparently. One of the most enthusiastic psychics told me to go on a high alkaline diet, and avoid potassium, GMOs, margarine, and wearing the color green, all of which exacerbate cancer. “So GMOs do cause cancer?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she said, “And higher autism and dyslexia.”
As the night wore on, I became more and more baffled by how many psychics claimed that they had a non-medical solution for me, yet none that appeared to be backed by science. Finally, I promised myself that my current psychic would be my last. I told her the story of my cancer: stage three, ovarian, and chemotherapy on the way.
“Can you help me?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she said.
“Should I get the chemo?”
“I can tell you that,” she said, “...if you go into a paid chat.”
Last year I was fortunate to catch a few episodes of a new show on the Discovery Channel, “The Magic of Science” also known as “Breaking Magic.” The nine-part series follows a team of magicians as they perform street magic in New York, Warsaw, and London.
Street magic is nothing new on our television screens. What makes Breaking Magic different is the discussion of scientific concepts and the use of physics, chemistry and psychology in making magic fun and intellectually stimulating. Whether it’s showing how sound waves can trick you into believing in telekinesis or the chemistry behind a liquid lie detector, the overall concept is both unique and visually appealing.
The series is returning for a second season in 2014, and I caught up with one of the team members, Canadian performer Billy Kidd (the others in the show are Australian James Galea, American Wayne Houchin, and Briton Ben Hanlin).
Billy Kidd was born Gia Anne-Marie Felicitas in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and has been involved in the performing arts from a young age, working as an actor in theatre, film and television. In her late teens, she got into magic and has now performed around the world as a magician, including Japan, UK, London, Canada, and Portugal.
Billy: I am a late bloomer you could say. I got into magic quite late. I got into it, maybe about seven years ago? I probably saw my first trick and then saw my first magician. That magician told me what books to read and that was that.
I got into it quite late, not like most magicians. Probably about seven years I saw my first magician and he told me what book to read and where to study. I kind of went from there. I think I've got a bit of a different story in the sense that I was never a kid learning magic in my room for years. I started practicing and performing it kind of all at the same time. I kind of spread up the process a little bit.
Kylie: What were you doing before then? Were you always interested in performing?
Billy: Actually, yes. I worked professionally as an actress since I was about twelve years old. That was my only job up until I became a magician. I think that's kind of helped me. When I decided to become a magician, I already had the performing experience. I just needed all the technical part of it, which I think is why I had no fear of just going out and doing it right away.
Kylie: The confidence in that would definitely be a big help. How would you describe the kind of magic that you do?
Billy: There are different categories of magic. I do a lot of close‑up magic, which is a lot of cards and stuff and more intimate kinds of magic, if you know what I mean, like things that happen in people's hands. I also do a stage show, which is not like big illusions as such but more of a stand‑up comedy magic, parlor type of show.
Those are the different types of magic that I do. I would say my style is kind of hard to explain. I've never really put myself in a style before. I like to play with the audience a lot, so I improvise quite a bit. I don't take it too seriously when I'm up on stage. I guess that's not my style, you could say!
Kylie: I first saw you performing at the Royal Institute of Science's Christmas lectures— they are online—in 2011 with Professor Bruce Hood. You’ve performed all around the world with your act. But what's it like as a magician in a tech savvy world where people will Google what's going on and go, “I know what's going on. That's done this way…”? What's it like in modern times?
Billy: Wherever I'm performing, I think that, “Oh, someone is going to look this up…” is the last thing that's on my mind. But yes I've had people say to me, “You know what? I'm going to look that up on YouTube after.”
I kind of take it with a grain of salt and I'm going, “Yes, they might,” which is unfortunate that the information is that accessible, but personally I don't think it's ruined anything for me as far as being a magician or performer because if they do figure it out, I just lie to them anyways because that's my job!
It's very rare that someone is going to go onto the Internet. They might figure out how it's done, but they'll never be able to do it. They'll never be able to go and perform it, unless they're a magician and they know how to do it or what to do.
I think it has pros and cons. I think the advantages of it being that accessible is that there are a lot of new younger magicians who are able to learn more quickly. Back in the day—maybe even ten years ago—there used to be a lot of brick-and-mortar magic shops which is kind of how I learned, going into a shop and seeing a magician show me a trick. It was very old school whereas now a lot of it's just online.
Kylie: I love still going into magic shops. It's one of my favorite things.
Billy: Me too! I love that atmosphere and it's a shame that not a lot of people get to experience that, but I do find that adds a whole other element to becoming a magician or learning about magic. It's going into that shop with all that stuff and going, “What is this?”
Kylie: And of course the dazzle of the show is great. It's never quite the same I guess in terms of being able to work it out for yourself.
Are there any particular challenges as a woman who's a magician? I mean, usually the stereotype is the assistant in the gorgeous, sparkly leotard on the side. Yet, Isla Fisher, the Australian actress, played a magician in the film, Now You See Me, and that was really popular. Is there a gap in the market in that regard? Have you ever faced any issues in that way?
Billy: Yeah, there's a huge gap. It's not one that I could... I don't really know why there is. People have asked me, “How come there's not a lot of female magicians?” I have no idea. I think there are some things, like you have to be a certain type of personality to be a magician in the first place. I don't know if maybe that's just not as common in women.
I also think I think historically in just in society in general, the role of the female‑there's never been that option to go, “Oh, I can be a magician when I grow up.” When I talk to a lot of male magicians, the usual story that I hear is, “Oh, I got a magic kit when I was eight or nine years old.” I don't think giving a young eight- or nine‑year‑old girl a magic kit is very popular. I don't know. I was never given that. I never saw any magic till I was eighteen, basically.
I think exposure is one thing for sure. Women aren't just exposed to it as men are, or encouraged to do something like that. The female magicians that I know or have come across, they had their own specific journey. Some of them had started out as assistants before they got into actual magic. Yeah, there is definite gap in it.
As far as challenges go, there are some challenges that creep up that I was never aware of before. Clothing, for one thing. Women's clothing has the worst pockets in the world, I find. It's so hard for me to shop for clothes with pockets, just to put something in. That's really frustrating, so I end up customizing a lot of my own clothing. Other little weird secret things that can affect things, like how our buttons go on the other side of a shirt. That can affect things, without revealing too many secrets. Every magic book you read is always geared toward men. It's always, “When you're wearing your suit and tie, put it in your inside pocket, do this,” or whatever it may be.
In fact, someone told me they had a book, and old magic book from, I don't know, I think the 1900s. There was reference to female magicians as an actual magician. In the tricks they would say, “If you're a woman, do this. If you're a man, do that.” That was from the early 1900s, and I've never come across a book that had any references if you were a woman.
I don't think that's very encouraging if you're a female you want to learn magic. There's no relationship for you. Also, because there are so few female magicians, I don't think we have too many influences to point to. There are no role models to look up to as well, which I think might affect things. It's a mystery to me!
Kylie: Well, there's certainly a gap in the market there. Having more women appear, and maybe even writing books, and—as you demonstrate yourself with your work— appearing on television.
You're in a show called “Breaking Magic,” which is funny, as I first saw you in a science show, and suddenly, here you are in a science show with magic. How did it start, and how did you become involved?
Billy: Someone had told me that they were looking for magicians for this new magic science show, and it's produced over here in London. I basically called the production company and asked them, “…Is it all right if I'm Canadian?” because you never know, right? I'm the one that doesn't belong over here! But they're like, “No, that's totally fine.”
I just basically called them and asked if I could audition, and that was pretty much it. It was a weird process, a long process. There were a couple of auditions and we had to do some science tricks. Then we did a fake pilot for the channel. They picked which magicians they wanted, and we went from there.
Kylie: What's it like working with the other magicians? Do you ever tag team in terms of, “Oh, I want to do this? You do that. Let's share on this.” What's it like?
Billy: All the other magicians on the show, they're fantastic. They're great. We all really get along. We're really good friends even though we live all over the world. Everyone's really supportive.
I prefer the opening links, the opening sequence of the show. That's the last thing that we film once all the magic tricks are done and we have a lot of fun doing that because we get to play around with the different tricks for the opening scene. It's just like a big collaborative process, basically.
Kylie: What's it like combining the science and the magic? I mean obviously you had already dipped your toes in the water from your time with the Royal Institute. How do you incorporate it? What's it like?
Billy: It's really, really hard. It's very difficult!
First of all, the other magicians in the show and I, none of us are scientists whatsoever. Honestly, science was my worst subject at school—I cheated my way through it, and that's the only way I graduated!
It’s very difficult, because there are so many variables that you're dealing with. As a magician, when you're performing your routines on stage or what not, you are very much in control of every circumstance possible. If something goes wrong, you know another way of fixing it through your magical knowledge.
With science, it's black and white, but it's also not. It's a gray area in some respects. For example, we could be doing tricks with, I don't know, chemicals, let's say. If the temperature outside or if the temperature in the room changes, it could ruin the whole effect. It's very not reliable. That's one of the biggest challenges of filming that show; we're dealing with all these variables that can affect things. When you're performing them, it's extra embarrassing if they don't work! It's a good challenge; it's fun!
Kylie: You do street magic as well. One of my favorite episodes had you doing mentalist tricks out on the street with people. What's that like? Are those your favorite episodes? What really gets you involved in the show?
Billy: Yeah, I enjoy doing street magic, because it's just a nice setting to be outside—if it's not raining—over here in London. We also did a lot of big stunts indoors, especially for the upcoming series. I like doing both, actually. Yeah, it's just a lot of fun to film outside, and inside and different weird places.
Kylie: What's a typical day like filming? Do you have to get up really early and go to locations and stuff?
Billy: There are some very early days where you have to get up early. Sometimes you don't start until the afternoon, especially if it's street magic or if it's outdoors, because you're dealing with sunlight. You're racing the sun, so time is of the essence. There may be issues with the weather, as well, and with finding the right people.
If we're doing street magic, we're doing some casting off the street, so it’s just pulling people going, “Hey, do you want to come see this trick? You mind if we film you?” Sometimes you get good audiences, and sometimes they’re not the greatest! You keep filming to get that good hit.
Kylie: Did you have a particular favorite episode, something that you enjoyed doing?
Billy: For season one or season two?
Kylie: Oh, season one. Then if you can give us a spoiler for season two, that would be extra special.
Billy: Okay, if I think back to season one—I think probably one of my favorite things to film was actually a hidden camera episode with me and another magician where I was playing a waiter, spilling wine on someone's jacket. I think that was my favorite episode to film, or one of them, because it was all hidden camera. It's a lot of pressure when there’s a hidden camera, because nobody knows what's going on. There's no expectation, which makes the reaction pretty genuine, which is interesting!
Also, because I've never been a server in my life! It's terrifying for me to do anything like that, because just asking them what they want for a drink, I was so nervous! That was a lot of fun to film, because it was just a lot of chaos. I think that was probably one of my favorite tricks to do, actually.
Kylie: How about season two? Are you able to tell us much?
Billy: I haven't been informed if I'm allowed any spoiler alerts! I can say this: it's going to be bigger. It's going to be better, some amazing stunts that we did this season.
Also, I think they're going to be putting in some non‑science magic that we're not going to expose, of course, but some “real” magic. Our own material that we magicians do, so there's going to be some of that, which I think is going to be better for the show overall. Viewers can say “Oh, that's science, and that's magic‑magic,” if that makes sense!
Kylie: I guess that raises the question, what do you do about the magician's code? There are trade secrets involved in magic—how do you compromise if people are saying, “Oh, don't tell too much?” What happens?
Billy: Yeah, well, I think that's a common misconception with all of us magicians, which is that we're constantly having to battle about the show. The only reason why we agreed to do it is because the tricks that we're doing on the show are all purely science. They're not material that many magicians do, if I could say!
It's all the science stuff that we do which is so impractical. I don't know what magician in their right mind would want to do it as far as we do for the show! Instead of having scientists doing science demonstrations, Discovery has magicians performing the science, making it look more interesting and entertaining in an educational way. That's the goal of the show: trying to get viewers more into science by looking at what we can disguise it as. None of the stuff that we do is what magicians actually do. We're not actually exposing magic secrets—we're just exposing science in a cooler way.
Season two: we've filmed a lot of us doing our own personal magic that's not science, and it's not going to be exposed. That's going to be clearer to the viewer going, “Oh, that's what magicians do, and that's science.” We're just putting a new spin on the science, if that makes sense.
It can be deceiving, because I have had people thinking, oh, so that's how magicians do all their tricks. They just use these chemicals all the time—I'm like, no, that's not how we do it! That's ridiculous. We could do it if we wanted to, but that's way too much work. That's a lot of set‑up!
Kylie: You'd have to bring your own lab and your own Erlenmeyer flasks to every single show…
Billy: Oh gosh, and yeah, our own chemist standing by just in case! Where do you even get all of this science material? As far as the magician’s code, yeah, there are some magicians who don't get the show. I'm sure there's some who think that's what we're doing. I can honestly tell you that is not our intention whatsoever.
Kylie: What can we expect for the new season? I know that it's happening soon and it’s going to be worldwide…
Billy: It is! I don't know when it's going out in Australia. I know in the UK, I've been told it’s March 12, the first episode of season two, which is exciting. I think it's going to be starting very soon—I'm just waiting myself!
Our difficulty accepting evolution isn’t just because some religions oppose it or that it is complicated—it isn’t. The problem may be a result of how our minds work.
Despite wide news coverage of evolution in recent years, and the fact that in January 2008 a leading science journal, Nature, declared evolution a fact, “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” remains fundamentally misunderstood in the popular media. Even on otherwise great TV shows, like BBC’s Life, I’ve heard evolution misrepresented with scripting that propagates certain myths about the evolutionary process: in TV land, species struggle to climb the ladder of evolution to the pinnacle (occupied by humanity, of course); species live in ecosystems of perfect balance; living things are locked in combat for brute survival; and species are each nature’s “solution,” designed for a certain role in the great machinery of Nature.
A little bit of biology reveals that none of these misconceptions hold water, so how can as simple a process as evolution be so misrepresented? I don’t think it’s just a misunderstanding of how evolution works; tax form 1099 is more complicated than evolutionary principles. I don’t think it’s just because there are some common myths about how evolution works (though there are enough of these that I co-wrote a book—The Top Ten Myths About Evolution —to unveil them). And I don’t think it’s just a result of religiously based misinformation about evolution, though there’s plenty of that (and always will be).
No, I think the widespread misunderstanding of evolution runs very deep. I think it has a lot to do with the way our minds work—with, basically, being human itself. That’s because the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making.
To understand how we came to think this way, we can look to the stimulating new field of “cognitive archaeology.”
Anthropology has shown that there are at least two meanings of humanness. “Anatomical modernity” is possessing a skeleton indistinguishable from that of modern humans, and we first see this in Africa by 100,000 years ago. The other meaning of humanness is “behavioral modernity,” exhibiting behaviors essentially indistinguishable from those of modern humans, meaning complex symbolism and somewhat modern language. Though it’s tough to spot archaeologically, there’s decent consensus that this is also first seen in Africa, in symbolic artifacts dated to almost 80,000 years ago, and without question by 50,000 years ago. It’s behavioral modernity that I’m concerned with here, and what it means for the mind—how we think—and why the way our minds work can make evolution hard to understand.Proaction, Reaction, and the Invention of Invention
I argue that behavioral modernity is rooted in proaction and creation. Nonhuman life-forms change by an evolutionary process that is entirely reactive, and while some other animals do make and use tools, humans are entirely dependent on creating things—such as a stone tool, an igloo, or a Polynesian sailing vessel—to survive.
This is clear when we consider that evolution doesn’t look forward. Nonhuman offspring of any parent generation are born into environments with bodies more or less identical to those of their parents, and therefore more or less suited to the environment in which their parents flourished. If the current environment is different from the parents’ environment, the offspring can’t do much about it. Certainly they don’t change their bodies to adapt to the new environmental conditions, because they don’t know that evolution is happening in the first place and because there’s just no way to rapidly tailor the physical body to fit new environments. Although there is acclimatization (within boundaries referred to as the “reaction norm”), such change is largely not genetically encoded to be transmitted to the next generation; all that happens is that some offspring do better than others and some do worse, meaning that some live in better health and mate more commonly than others, sending the DNA that works for the present environment on to the next generation. And that’s it; if the gene pool has been altered, evolution is occurring. Nonhuman evolution, it’s easy to see, is reactive—just nonrandom differential survival of offspring born with bodies that worked in yesterday’s environment; as evolutionist R.C. Lewontin put it in 1989, “The organism proposes; the environment disposes.”1
But human evolution is very different. Humanity’s trick—and it’s a good one—is the ability to quickly adjust to any environmental pressure by inventing adaptations. Inventions can be artifacts, like a pair of warm boots, or complex behaviors, such as a dance that symbolically communicates how to hunt a particular animal. Whatever the invention, the point is that people thought it up; they perceived a problem and then designed a solution specific to that problem. And we don’t just do it for fun—we live or die by our ability to buffer our frail bodies against an ever-changing array of selective pressures. This has allowed human behavior to become largely decoupled from our biology, or at least not dictated by it, allowing us to survive and thrive globally not because of our bodies but despite them. And this capacity for inventing adaptations itself evolved; current cutting-edge theory suggests that at the heart of the broadly named “intelligence” we use to survive is the capacity for proactively adapting to new circumstances—creativity.2 The appearance of this capacity is the appearance of a new variety of evolution; it is the evolution of evolution itself, and it is distinctive enough in the three-billion-plus years of Earth life that it has been considered one of the eight main transitions in the history of the evolutionary process.3
From all of this we can see that humanity’s most useful adaptation has been the invention of invention. And from the day we learn that a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich doesn’t just spontaneously assemble itself—that it must be assembled with intent (preferably by someone else)—it seems obvious that all of the other things we see in the world (or at least those at least as complex as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich) were similarly assembled with intent. An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design (you try to make one!) that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent. Superficially this seems reasonable enough and it has been the basis of the “Argument from Design” since the early nineteenth century, when William Paley wrote about the obviousness of design in nature in Natural Theology: “Upon the whole; after all the schemes and struggles of a reluctant philosophy [to explain complex things], the necessary resort is to a Deity. The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.”4
This argument is likely familiar to readers of Skeptical Inquirer, but here I’m not interested in examining its logical foundations (that has been thoroughly done) so much as its psychological foundations; that is, why Paley was compelled to argue this way. Obviously it is partly a result of two thousand years of the Christian church channeling the Western mind into theological interpretations, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think it also has to do with the long history of proactive making that has supported our genus since the origins of behavioral modernity. Humanity has been intentionally making things to survive for at least two million years, and that familiarity with proaction has stamped us to intuitively interpret “complex design” as necessarily the result of similar proaction. Here we draw the issue to its sharpest point: What do I mean when I say that this proaction has “stamped” us to think in a particular way? The mechanism is unclear, but the effects are real. In a review of studies of child psychology, Boston University psychologist Deborah Kelemen found that children “teleologically treat objects [and natural phenomena] as ‘for’ a single privileged function” and, furthermore, that by six- to ten-years-old they “reason about non-natural agents’ mental states…and view objects in terms of design.”5 How much of this “intuitive theism” is instinctual and how much is culturally conditioned is unknown, but the pattern is clear.
In this way, Paley and adherents of his view think, technically, like children who inhabit a small bubble of space and time perception. Assuming that things are designed, they must have a designer. This is compelling in the face of almost incomprehensible complexity in nature, but only if we do not take the time to look closely at that complexity. For example, what we see—say, a mature oak tree—appears to be a “finished product” until we open our eyes to a time dimension (one barely accessible to Paley and his supporters), which reveals that complexity today might well have been passively assembled over a long period rather than purposively composed in a flash of inspiration. We can open and examine a spatial dimension as well to look carefully even at the molecules of DNA that direct the construction of amino acids into proteins and proteins into tissues that compose the whole, from bark to leaf. Such wedges between “common sense” and an evolutionary perspective—wedges between technically childish and scientifically educated thinking—have only come up recently in civilization, particularly in the last century and a half of modern evolutionary science.
Where did this capacity to appreciate the space and time dimensions and phenomena that actually account for the complexity of living things come from? As I mentioned before, it evolved, and in ways that we are starting to understand today.Teflon, Velcro, and the Modern Human Mind
The origins of the creatively adaptive mind of our genus lie in the evolution of new memory systems in the brain and information-processing capacities of the mind,6 and much of this played out in the evolution of language. While other animals certainly communicate, humans use many complex rules to exchange large amounts of information with great subtlety, at high speed, and with relatively few errors. What is most distinctive about human language, however, is the nature of its symbols, which actively promote invention.
Nonhuman primate communication uses the simplest kind of symbolism, as when a monkey gives an “aerial predator” screech or “ground predator” hoot, eliciting the proper defensive behaviors from their companions. These vocalizations are symbols because the sounds are arbitrary and they “mean” something else; a high screech signifies an aerial predator, while a low hoot signifies a ground predator. What is most interesting about these communications is that they’re very simple; I call these “Teflon” because nothing sticks to them. The aerial predator screech can only ever mean aerial predator. The symbol to symbolized ratio is 1:1.
In the most profound contrast, humans “stick” concepts together, making more complex messages; this is what I call “Velcro” symbolism, because one symbol sticks to the next. For example, we might say, “Watch out for that guy; he’s a real snake!” With human language, the symbol to symbolized ratio is 1:n because any word can be used to mean anything else we choose. The sound used to indicate “snake” can now describe the characteristics of a person. Somewhere in the evolution of our minds, our lineage broke some kind of barrier such that symbols were no longer concretely attached to one another; anything could mean anything. That “somewhere” is currently being intensively investigated.
What’s the advantage of such complex language, of “Velcro” symbolism? At the very least, it allows a better “fit” between the individual (or group) and his or her world. Simple, slavish reactions to alarms that mean “Climb, fast!” (ground predator) or “Drop fast!” (aerial predator) may be wasteful and unnecessary. But subtler messages made a better fit of action to environment. And the increased complexity of the human language system allowed more (and more detailed) information to be communicated rapidly; knowledge is power, and this is how human behavior became decoupled from its anatomy and how humanity survives despite rather than because of our physical frames. “Velcro” symbolism is also what really distinguishes humans from other animals, and from its origin—at least 50,000 years ago—humanity has been making things (including sentences) with conscious intent. Even receiving a message requires deciphering exactly what the other person really meant as opposed to (perhaps) what they actually said, so even the act of interpretation , shaped by the knowledge of intended creation by the other party, is itself purposive creation close to the very heart of humanness.
So, from the beginning of what we can call behavioral modernity over 50,000 years ago, we humans have been thinking about and interpreting the world as though it were made by intent, at least partly because we as a species evolve by “rolling creation,” a microsecond-by-microsecond flow of creation of meaning and even novel assembly of matter.Creativity and the Understanding of Evolution
Creating, making, inventing, building, imagining—everything from stone tools to poems—are proactive human acts. Our mythologies are full of creation and we venerate exceptional creators. There is no end to human creation so long as there are minds capable of sticking ideas and words together in new ways. Without this ability we would be as interchangeable as insects, reacting (and that unknowingly) to natural selection rather than inventing ways to avoid it.
Creativity and proactively creating are at the heart of humanness, and when we think childishly we find it hard to understand that evolution is not, also, a result of proaction. But with maturity we understand that nonhuman evolution isn’t actually a thing but the completely unintended consequence of three independent, factual, and observable processes (replication of life-forms; variation in offspring; selection among offspring).7 This gives us a far richer understanding of how the natural world works, and how all these wonderful slime molds, birches, Venus flytraps, jellyfish, and every other living thing, actually came to be.Notes
1. See p. 276 of Lewontin, R.C. 1983. Gene, organism and environment. In Bendall, D.S. (ed). 1983. Evolution from Molecules to Men. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 273–285.
2. For example, see Gabora, L. 2010. Revenge of the ‘neurds’: Characterizing creative thought in terms of the structure and dynamics of human memory. Creativity Research Journal 22 (1):1–13.
3. Szathmary, E. and J.M. Smith. 1994. The major evolutionary transitions. Nature 374: 227–232.
4. Paley, G. 1881. Natural Philosophy. New York: American Tract Society.
5. Kelemen, D. 2004. Are children ‘intuitive theists’? Reasoning about purpose and design in nature. Psychological Science 15: 295–301.
6. For more on this topic, see Smith, C.M. 2006. Rise of the modern mind. Scientific American MIND August/September 2006: 32–39.
7. For an update to modern evolutionary theory see Smith, C.M., and J. Ruppell. 2012. What anthropologists should know about the new evolutionary synthesis. Structure and Dynamics 5(2). Available online at http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/18b9f0jb.
What did he see? The missing piece of the puzzle in a strange ‘UFO’ case involving the crash of a young pilot off Australia has been identified.
What is known as the “Valentich disappearance” is a strange occurrence in the annals of UFOlogy, one never satisfactorily explained—until now. One of us (Nickell) was asked to look into the case for a television show, and he queried the other (McGaha) who came up with the missing piece of the puzzle (as perhaps only someone who was both a pilot and astronomer could do).
The story begins in Australia about 19:00 hours (7:00 PM), or shortly after sunset (6:43 PM), on October 21, 1978. A young man named Frederick “Fred” Valentich—who had left Victoria’s Moorabbin airport at 18:19 (6:19 PM)—was piloting a light airplane, a rented single-engine Cessna 182L (registration VH-DSJ) over Bass Strait, heading southeastwardly for King Island. When what he thought was another aircraft seemed to pass over him, he radioed Melbourne Air Flight Service, and spoke with controller Steve Robey. Here is the (slightly abridged) exchange (with punctuation and capitalization added), taken from the transcript of the audiotape (beginning at 19:06:14):
Valentich: Is there any known traffic below five thousand [feet]?
Robey: No known traffic.
V: I am—seems [to] be a large aircraft below five thousand.
R: What type of aircraft is it?
V: I cannot affirm. It is [sic] four bright, it seems to me like landing lights. . . . The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.
R: Roger, and it, it is a large aircraft? Confirm.
V: Er, unknown due to the speed it’s traveling. Is there any Air Force aircraft in the vicinity?
R: No known aircraft in the vicinity.
V: It’s approaching right now from due east towards me. . . . [Silence for 2 seconds.] It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game. He’s flying over me two, three times, at a time at speeds I could not identify.
R: Roger. What is your actual level?
V: My level is four and a half thousand. Four five zero zero.
R: And confirm you cannot identify the aircraft.
R: Roger. Stand by.
V: It’s not an aircraft. It is—[Silence for 2 seconds.]
R: Can you describe the, er, aircraft?
V: As it’s flying past, it’s a long shape. [Silence for 3 seconds.] [Cannot] identify more than [that it has such speed]. [Silence for 3 seconds.] [It is] before me right now, Melbourne.
R: And how large would the, er, object be?
V: It seems like it’s stationary.1 What I’m doing right now is orbiting, and the thing is just orbiting on top of me also. It’s got a green light and sort of metallic. [Like] it’s all shiny [on] the outside. [Silence for 5 seconds.] It’s just vanished. . . . Would you know what kind of aircraft I’ve got? Is it military aircraft?
R: Confirm the, er, aircraft just vanished.
V: Say again.
R: Is the aircraft still with you?
V: [It’s, ah, nor-] [Silence for 2 seconds.] [Now] approaching from the southwest. . . . The engine is, is rough idling. I’ve got it set at twenty three twenty four, and the thing is—coughing.
R: Roger. What are your intentions?
V: My intentions are, ah, to go to King Island. Ah, Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. [Silence for 2 seconds.] It is hovering, and it’s not an aircraft. [Silence for 17 seconds, open microphone, with audible, unidentified staccato noise. End of transcript.] ( Aircraft Accident 1982. See also Good 1988, 175–77; Chalker 1998, 964; Haines and Norman 2000; Baker 2000, 248)
Some versions of the transcript fail to match that of the accident report in important details. For example, instead of “[It is] before me right now,” one source (Chalker 2001, 629) gives “. . . coming for me right now.”
The communication ended about 19:12:49. Although an intensive air, land, and sea search was carried out until October 25, no trace of the Cessna was found. An oil slick discovered on October 22, some eighteen miles north of King Island, “was not established as having any connection with Valentich’s plane” (Good 1988, 178). The Bureau of Air Safety Investigation released its findings in May 1982, stating that “The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined,” but that the outcome was “presumed fatal” (Aircraft Accident 1982). Suicide? Staged disappearance? Alien attack or abduction? Drug runners’ shootdown? Electrical discharge from a cloud igniting gas fumes? There were many “theories,” including those of “psychics” (Chalker 1998, 966–67; “Valentich” 2013). However, none seemed to explain both the disappearance and the lights. To understand what happened, we need to look more closely at Fred Valentich.The Pilot
Fred Valentich was a twenty-year-old, inexperienced flyer with only about 150 total hours flying time and a class-four instrument rating (which meant he could operate at night but only “in visual meteorological conditions” [Aircraft Accident 1982]). He had twice been rejected by the Royal Australian Air Force, due to inadequate education. Having obtained a private pilot license in September 1977, he was studying part time for a commercial pilot’s license.
Unfortunately, he had failed all five of his exam subjects—not once but twice—and, just the month before, again failed three subjects. Further, his involvement in three flying incidents came to the attention of officials: once he received a warning for having strayed into restricted air space, and twice he was cited for deliberately flying blindly into a cloud, for which he was under threat of prosecution (Sheaffer 2013; “Valentich” 2013). In brief, Valentich may have been an accident waiting to happen.Valentich with a Cessna, similar to the aircraft he disappeared in.
Moreover, the young pilot was enthralled with UFOs, watching films and accumulating articles on the topic. Earlier that year, according to his father, Valentich had himself observed a UFO moving away very fast. And he had expressed to his father his worry about what could happen if such presumed extraterrestrial craft should ever attack (Sheaffer 2013; “Valentich” 2013). As we shall see, his deep belief in flying saucers may have contributed to his death—and not in the way some saucer buffs imagine.
Some thought Valentich might have staged his disappearance, but the evidence does not support that hypothesis (Good 1988, 180). Nevertheless Valentich did give two contradictory reasons for his flight to King Island: (1) to pick up some friends (as he told flight officials), or (2) to pick up crayfish. However, these reasons were found to be untrue (Aircraft Accident 1982; “Valentich” 2013). Valentich had not even followed standard procedure to inform King Island airport of his intent to land there (“Disappearance” 2013).
So what was Valentich really up to—in addition to wanting to log more hours of flying experience? Possibly he had decided to look for UFOs again but, rather than admit that, offered others more legitimate-sounding reasons for his flight. In short, he may not simply have encountered a UFO but instead went looking for one. If so, his “encounter” is not surprising. As a “True Believer,” observes Robert Sheaffer (2013, 27), Valentich was “probably inclined to assume anything is a ‘UFO’ if he could not immediately identify it.”
So what did the young pilot see? Having clear skies, he described four bright lights that he mistakenly (as he later admitted) first thought were an airplane’s “landing lights” (that is, white points of light). They were above him and—except for his own movements (more on this later)—seemed to be just “hovering.” Then twice and quite correctly, he realized “it” was definitely “not an aircraft.”
As it happens, a computer search of the sky for the day, time, and place of Valentich’s flight reveals that the four points of bright light he would almost certainly have seen were the following: Venus (which was at its very brightest), Mars, Mercury, and the bright star Antares. These four lights would have represented a diamond shape, given the well-known tendency of viewers to “connect the dots,” and so could well have been perceived as an aircraft or UFO. In fact, the striking conjunction was shaped as a vertically elongated diamond, thus explaining Valentich’s saying of the UFO that “it’s a long shape.”
As to the UFO’s other characteristics, the “metallic” or “shiny” appearance could have been due to the power of suggestion alone. Having connected the dots, Valentich would likely have gone on to fill in the area as solid, even “metallic.” We must remember that Valentich’s impressions are those of someone who was confused about what he was seeing.
The “green light” could have been part of this confusion also. Remember, Valentich’s first description of the UFO involved only four bright white lights; he made no mention at that time of a green one. It could actually have been nothing more than the Cessna’s own navigation light on its right wing tip. That green light—or its reflection on the windshield—could easily have been superimposed onto the UFO sighting.
A witness on the ground, who described having seen a green light just above Valentich’s plane, had not mentioned that aspect of his story at the time. However, many years later—after the green light was made public—he did mention the detail, but he is only identified by a pseudonym. Nevertheless, he said (in the words of his interviewers) that “Its color was similar to the navigation lights on an airplane” (Haines and Norman 2000, 26)! If the Cessna was indeed close enough to the land as to be seen by the man and his two nieces, there is a simple explanation: that the airplane’s attitude (a steep angle of bank) was such that its right wing tip was up, and so its green navigation light appeared above the Cessna. As the witness stated, the light was positioned “like it was riding on top of the airplane,” and it kept a constant position, according to the witnesses (Haines and Norman 2000, 26). But again, there are problems with the main witness’s description. As his interviewers acknowledge, his “recollection of the angular size of the airplane’s lights is too large by perhaps several orders of magnitude” (Haines and Norman 2000, 28). (Incidentally, misreadings by amateur writers have now converted Valentich’s “green light” into multiple “green lights” [e.g., “Disappearance” 2013].)
But what about the UFO’s movements when it was not “hovering”? It is now clear—since we have identified the UFO as probably a conjunction of four celestial lights—that it was not the UFO moving in relation to the plane but rather the opposite: the plane moving in relation to the stationary lights. There is actually evidence from the transcript that this is so. After the UFO has repeatedly seemed to fly over him, Valentich says, “What I’m doing right now is orbiting, and the thing is just orbiting on top of me.”
This points to what was really happening to the poor inexperienced pilot. Distracted by the UFO, he may then have been deceived by the illusion of a tilted horizon. That can happen when the sun has gone down but still brightens part of the horizon, while, of course, the rest of it gets gradually darker farther away. This imbalance of lighting can cause the horizon to appear tilted, so that, in compensating by “leveling” the wings, the pilot inadvertently begins—not to orbit (circle), but to spiral downward—at first slowly, then with increasing acceleration.
At a most critical time therefore, when he should have been in fully alert mode, paying attention to his instruments, he was instead engaged in something that was extremely distracting: flying while excitedly focusing on, and talking about, a UFO. This, as we can now see, was a recipe for disaster. With Valentich succumbing to spatial disorientation, his plane (like that of young John F. Kennedy Jr. over two decades later) began what is aptly termed a “graveyard spiral.”
Further corroboration of this may come from the pilot’s statement that the engine was “rough idling”—just seconds away from his final contact. The plane’s moving in a tightening spiral would cause an increase of G-forces with a consequent decrease in fuel flow, resulting in the engine’s rough running. Or, at that point, the Cessna may have already inverted, producing the same effect because that plane had a gravity-fed fuel system.
Not surprisingly, Valentich’s airplane going missing while he was radioing a UFO report prompted talk of extraterrestrials and abduction. Indeed, it spawned later reports of other UFOs allegedly seen on the night of the Cessna’s disappearance. These provoked a skeptical Ken Williams, spokesperson of the Department of Transport, to tell a reporter, “It’s funny all these people ringing up with UFO reports well after Valentich’s disappearance” (“Pilot Missing” 1978).
Just a month after the disappearance, the pilot of another Cessna sighted the outline of what he believed was a submerged aircraft, but on another pass over, he was unable to confirm that observation (Good 1988, 178). Now thanks to yeoman’s work by Australian researcher Keith Basterfield, who rediscovered the “lost” official case file, we have new information. As he explains, “parts of aircraft wreckage with partial matching serial numbers were found in Bass Strait five years after the disappearance.” (Qtd. in Sheaffer 2013, 27.)
Fred Valentich’s UFO has now been identified. That is, we can show that a group of four bright lights, consistent with his description, was within his sight at the time he was reporting his UFO. This is the long missing piece of the puzzle that awaited solving because the case required expertise from astronomy as well as aeronautics.
The identification underscores the inescapable fact that the disappearance was simply a fatal crash. Ironically, it might never have occurred but for the young pilot’s fascination with UFOs. If not actually the reason for his evening flight, as we suspect, the fascination nevertheless was part of why it ended tragically.
We can now reread the transcript of the exchanges between Valentich and an air traffic controller with a new understanding. In our mind’s eye we watch in horror as—distracted and disoriented—the young pilot unexpectedly enters the “graveyard spiral” that carries him to his death. n
CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan provided considerable research assistance.
1. Haines, using special filters, believes the word stationary is actually the phrase chasing me (Haines and Norman 2000, 24).
Aircraft Accident Investigation Summary Report. 1982. Department of Transportation, Commonwealth of Australia. Ref. No. V116/783/1047, April 27.
Baker, Alan. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Alien Encounters. New York: Checkmark Books.
Chalker, Bill. 1998. Valentich Disappearance. In Clark 1998, 2: 964–68.
———. 2001. Valentich (Bass Strait, Australia) UFO encounter. In Story 2001, 628–31.
Clark, Jerome. 1998. The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition: The Phenomenon from the Beginning, in two vols. Detroit: Omnigraphics.
The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich. 2013. Online at http://marvmelb.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-disappearance-of-frederick-valentich.html; accessed June 12, 2013.
Good, Timothy. 1988. Above Top Secret: The Worldwide UFO Cover-up. New York: William Morrow.
Haines, Richard F., and Paul Norman. 2000. Valentich disappearance: New evidence and a new conclusion. Journal of Scientific Exploration 14:1, 19–33.
Pilot Missing after UFO Report. 1978. Associated Press story in Waterloo Courier, October 24; cited in “Valentich” 2013.
Sheaffer, Robert. 2013. Psychic Vibrations column, Skeptical Inquirer 37:2 (March/April) 26–27.
Story, Ronald D., ed. 2001. The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters. New York: New American Library.
Valentich Disappearance. 2013. Online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valentich_disappearance; accessed May 20.
I gave a talk for RIT Skeptics with the above title. This post is the analogue version of the presentation for those who couldn’t attend. It’s also a good way for me to organize my thoughts in a linear fashion.
The point of the talk is to show whether or not some ideas of ‘Special Creation’ can be supported by science. Specifically, I’ll compare the Theory of Evolution with concepts of Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism.
In a general sense, Creationism is the idea that some supernatural power is responsible for the diversity of life on Earth. This supernatural force is responsible for our existence on this planet. This is in contradiction to the scientific theory of Evolution, which holds that the diversity of life on Earth today can be tracked back to a single common, unicellular, ancestor, and that the diversity is due to the accumulation of minute changes along lineages over billions of years.
To begin, let’s talk about what constitutes ‘science.’How the scientific method works, from observations to falsification. If a hypothesis is falsified, the hypothesis may be modified.
We’ve probably all heard at some point of the ‘scientific method.’ In short, the idea is that observations are made by the scientist.
The Bumble fell off the cliff but survived by bouncing.
The scientist then develops a hypothesis to explain the observations.
In developing the hypothesis, the scientist also comes up with some predictions and at least one test to check whether the hypothesis is valid.
If this is true, then every time a Bumble falls down, it should bounce.
Then the scientist runs the test.
Shove the Bumble off a cliff.
The scientist awaits the results.
Oops. The Bumble didn’t bounce.
The scientist has either supported or falsified the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is falsified, then it’s not all over. The hypothesis can be revised.
Maybe it’s not the Bumble that bounces. Maybe it’s where it falls off the cliff that matters.
Then we can test the new hypothesis.
Take another Bumble to the original cliff where the first Bumble bounced and give it a shove.
And the process goes on by asking better and more focused questions. What is it about a Bumble that makes it bounce? Can other things bounce like Bumbles? What’s so special about that one cliff?
What’s crucial here is that the hypothesis (Bumbles bounce) makes predictions (Bumbles will always bounce) and is testable (shove a Bumble off a cliff) and falsifiable (if the Bumble doesn’t bounce).
In order for something to be considered scientific, it must meet these criteria.
One other thing that science does is intentionally limit its explanations to the natural, material, observable world. But we’re going to set this aside for the sake of this discussion.
Evolution is a scientific theory. It has met the above criteria and has been repeatedly tested and has not yet been disproved. Some aspects of it are not yet understood, but on the whole, Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth.
I will mention here at once, however, that the Theory of Evolution is not a theory to explain life’s origin (it assumes that life is already present), it is not a theory to explain the origin of the universe, nor is it a theory to explain the complexity of anything.
It’s really important to define what is meant by ‘Creationism,’ because it can mean a lot of things. I’m speaking specifically here of the two types of Creationism that are most often trying to be promoted as science in the United States: Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism. Both claim to be based in science (and indeed, look kinda science-y), and proponents of each are trying to get these ideas taught in science classrooms.
So let’s talk about these things.
Intelligent Design is the idea that there are things in biology that are simply too complex to have arisen by the mechanisms proposed by Evolution. For example, you can’t have a mouse trap with fewer than eight parts. All the parts must come into existence at once, or some outer intelligence has to make those things. Another common example is the idea that if you found a pocket watch on the beach, you wouldn’t assume that it just formed there. You’d assume that someone made it.
Intelligent Design puts forward that certain mechanisms (like the flagellum on bacteria or the blood clotting cascade of enzymes) is far too complex to be the result of even billions of years of evolution. The catch-phrase for this is “irreducibly complex.” These things, Intelligent Design claims, were made by an external force, and external intelligence. In most cases, this intelligence is presumed to be the God of the Judeo-Christian bible. (It is most often, in the United States anyway, Christians who argue for this.) Thus, an eight-piece mouse trap is irreducibly complex. A four-piece mousetrap won’t work.
It is interesting that Intelligent Design does support many of the basic arguments of the Theory of Evolution. Intelligent Design is fine with micro-evolution, the instances of evolution that we can observe, like the development of resistant strains of bacteria. This is fine, because in that case we’re not changing species of bacteria, just strains. The variety of dog breeds is fine too. Breeds or races of one species, though radically different in appearance, are still all one species.
Like Intelligent Design, Scientific Creationism claims to have scientific proof that the Earth and everything on it was specially created by some supernatural force. Also, similar to Intelligent Design, it generally comes from fundamentalist Christians. In this case, the arguments go beyond an explanation for the diversity of life, but focus on the bible-literalist idea that the Earth is about 6,000 years old.
To do this, creation scientists use the same techniques the I as a geoscientist might use, but their goal is to prove that the Earth is much younger than the rest of the geoscience community thinks it is. Creation scientists in the laboratory are indistinguishable from mainstream scientists such as myself.
ARE EITHER OF THESE SCIENTIFIC?
We need to ask ourselves if these two ideas meet the criteria above for being scientific.
Let’s start with Intelligent Design.
Hypothesis – Parts of biological systems are too complex to have arisen naturally. These are irreducibly complex.
Makes Predictions -
1) Certain parts of biological systems appear all at once and abruptly in organism lineages.
2) Any part of a greater irreducibly complex feature cannot function by itself.
Testable – Find an irreducibly complex structure or mechanism. Check to see if its parts can function outside of the whole.
Falsifiable – If parts of an irreducibly complex structure do function outside of the whole, then the hypothesis is falsified and must be revised.
Well, this looks all right. Maybe it is scientific.
We can look at the bacterial flagellum and see if it’s simpler parts work (they actually do!). We can also look at the blood clotting cascade and see if independent parts of the cascade can exist in the absence of the rest of the cascade (they do!).
Does the fact that we haven’t identified a without-a-doubt irreducibly complex system in living things completely refute this aspect of Intelligent Design? Maybe not.
But let’s take a step back and think about this in practical terms. Is this a useful thing to pursue? In proving that there are irreducibly complex things then we prove the existence of the supernatural. Is that useful? Could there not be other explanations? Maybe when we find something that we all agree is irreducibly complex we can have this discussion.
In the meantime, I would point out that you can have a one-part mouse trap. A wall isn’t a very efficient mouse-trap, but it can work.
Let’s take this back to the original problem: How does Intelligent Design compare with the Theory of Evolution, in regards to the diversity of life on Earth.
For microevolution, they are in exact agreement.
Hypothesis – Organisms over generations can be markedly different from their ancestors in appearance and/or physiology. These changes occur in response to stresses (or selections), whether natural (weaker organisms do not survive to reproduce) or artificial (individual organisms are selected to breed with one another to convey desirable traits to the next generation).
Makes Predictions -
1) A population of organisms under stress will change when a selective pressure is put on them.
Testable – Place a population under stress. Select the stressor carefully, however.
Falsifiable – The organisms do not change.
For macroevolution, Intelligent Design and Evolution are quite different.
Evolution’s Hypothesis – Small, step-wise changes over great periods of time will result in the entirely of biological diversity, including the development of animals versus plants and the different, large grouping within each of these kingdoms. (And this also includes the fungi and other kingdoms of organisms on Earth.)
Prediction – In the fossil record, a continuum of organisms, including forms intermediate between large divisions of organisms may be found.
Intelligent Design’s Hypothesis – The large groups of organisms are differentiated by irreducibly complex structures and are thus completely distinct.
Predictions – No intermediate forms are possible in the fossil record.
To test either of these hypotheses, one need to dig (literally) into the fossil record.
What does the fossil record say? There are abundant transitional forms, including the transitional form between fish and amphibians. But there is yet argument (though not in the paleontological community) about whether these are truly transitional forms.
How about Scientific Creationism:
Hypothesis – The Earth is only 6000 years old, thus too short lived for biological evolution to have occurred.
Makes Predictions -
1) No geological materials may be greater than 6000 years old.
2) Catastrophic events from the bible, for example Noah’s flood, are recorded in the rock record.
Testable – The geosciences has all sorts of methods for assigning ages to rocks. The geosciences also have methods for identifying flood events in the rock record.
Falsifiable – The discovery of ages older than 6000 years negates the first prediction. The absence of evidence of a global catastrophic flood negates the second prediction.
Well, this seems as if it ought to be really easy to disprove and cast aside out-of-hand. I mean there are lots of dates of the Earth and geological materials that are a great deal older than 6000 years. But, if you’re not science-minded, you might not know that. You might take a man with his Bachelor’s degree in Geology at his word when he tells you that the rocks he dated were only 6000 years old.
It’s equally possible that a lay person might not realize that the lovely evidence for flooding that this same geologist is presenting is really limited in geographic extent, and is in no way global, like he’s claiming.
Creation Science in that regard is a little diabolical. The science that creation scientists are doing – their methods – are fine and fair. The difficulty is their extension into broad conclusions that overreach the results of their analyses. But you need to have a solid background in science to recognize that.
You can read more about my impressions of Creation Science in this article I wrote in 2007.
But how does Creation Science stack up against Evolution, with regards to the diversity of life on Earth?
Evolution’s Hypothesis – Small, step-wise changes over great periods of time will result in the entirety of biological diversity, including the development of animals versus plants and the different, large grouping within each of these kingdoms. (And this also includes the fungi and other kingdoms of organisms on Earth.)
Prediction – In the fossil record, a continuum of organisms, including forms intermediate between large divisions of organisms may be found.
Creation Sciences’s Hypothesis – The Earth is only 6000 years old. While microevolution may yet be possible, the major groups (kinds) of organisms were placed on the Earth at its formation 6000 years ago.
Predictions – The fossil record should only include fossils of modern kinds. Hypothetical ancestors could not have existed. Anything other than the modern kinds may have once existed, but did not survive the catastrophic events like Noah’s flood.
Again, to test these predictions, one need only dig into the rock record. The fossil record should be dominated by modern ‘kinds’ of animals, with animals of different kinds being buried below layers indicating some manner of catastrophic event. (It should also be impossible to find any rocks older than 6000 years).
So, are either Intelligent Design or Scientific Creationism supported by science?
The answer is no.
We can sure present them as science, complete with predictions. But their predictions fail. We do have rocks older than 6000 years old. We do have irreducibly complex structures that are reducible. We do have intermediate forms in the fossil record.
Time and again, science has refuted the predictions made by Intelligent Design and by Scientific Creationism.
And when they fail, both camps of creationism induce the supernatural itself, claiming that where Evolution does not yet have an answer, that’s where the supernatural resides, or contradictory evidence has been placed by the supernatural itself to deceive us.
Remember what I said early on? Science intentionally ignores the supernatural. It’s left out of the equation. Intelligent Design and Creation Science both fail as true science immediately, because of their purpose to prove that the supernatural exists.
Both Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism support Evolution’s concept of microevolution, but not macroevolution (but for totally different reasons). Their predictions to support their concept of macroevolution (the presence of ‘kinds’) fail in the rock record.
Both Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism are microevolution (a scientific concept explained by Evolution), plus some other ideas that have no scientific support. These other ideas do not agree with scientific observations. So if we’re going to stick to the science, we’d best stick to Evolution.
I'm very fortunate to live in a great part of the world, near Fremantle in Western Australia. I'm also very fortunate that there's proactive people here who are very concerned about vaccination rates—and are willing to try outreach in a number of different ways. For this interview, I talked to Dr. Katie Attwell, of "I Immunise."
Fremantle contains a number of families who practice what might be regarded as alternative parenting. It is not unusual to see a mother breastfeeding a toddler. Many parents wear their babies and use cloth nappies. These practices are in keeping with Fremantle’s reputation for being clean, green and forward thinking.
Parents within this community seek to make informed and ethical decisions regarding their children and lifestyles. However, concerns, scepticism and outright opposition to vaccines can be pervasive, and are spread through shared social networks in which they can appear the norm.
When parents elect not to immunise their children, this affects those around them who may become vulnerable to disease due to insufficient herd immunity. At risk are newborn babies too young to be immunised, and individuals whose immune systems are compromised by disease or chemotherapy.
The I Immunise campaign was formulated by a member of this community, and addresses parents who identify with natural birthing, breastfeeding and healthy living.
Kylie Sturgess: I'm here with Dr. Katie Attwell. Firstly, tell me about yourself, and why are you interested in public health?
Katie Attwell: I fell into it, actually. My background is in political science. That's what my PhD is in. That's what my main job is. I'm a politics lecturer at Murdoch University.
My passion for this really came through being a parent and finding myself amongst a community where I felt that many people were anti‑vaccination or were skeptical about vaccination. That led me to feel quite vulnerable for the well‑being of my children, particularly my newborn baby. Also, it led me to become quite passionate about the issue and to want to speak out about it.
Kylie: How did the Immunisation Alliance of Western Australia begin?
Katie: It began well before my involvement. I was actually recruited to join the organization after writing an opinion piece in the Fremantle Herald—basically castigating my community for not immunising!
The Alliance itself began in 2007, I think it was. It was the brainchild of someone who was working for the Health Department at the time, who recognised that there were similar organizations in America of communities who were in favor of immunisation and were actually working to counter the anti‑vax voices out there.
Health prodded the organization along, but the membership was always interested individuals being involved in their private capacity. Over time, the relationship between the Department of Health and the Alliance has grown more distant, in a good way, in that for us it's really important that we be an organization that stands on its own two feet and can be independent from everybody.
Obviously, our core membership and active membership has changed over that time as well. The current people who are involved and in leadership roles, they're pretty much all parents. People are many things as well as being parents. Our chair is a UWA professor. Other people involved are scientists.
A lot of people tend to have a nursing background that tend to go into other health avenues, so we've got some people from that background. We have people who are purely parents and concerned citizens. It’s quite a diverse group of people, but we're all very passionate about immunisation.
We have a number of aims. Obviously, we want to provide that voice that says vaccination is safe, effective, and a public good. We see that there are different functions that we can have as an organization, and we're still very much growing and developing. We would like to eventually be the group that people come to if they want public comment on immunisation and issues as they arise in the media.
We'd like to be able to talk about them; we'd like to be able to make ourselves known. But we're also a resource that people can come to with their questions as well.
Kylie: You mentioned anti‑vaccination voices. What are some of the issues facing Australia regarding immunisation? Are there any particular concerns to WA?
Katie: Do you mean the people that are worried about immunisation, or do you mean the people that...
Kylie: It could be either, couldn't it? It could be someone who has doubts, as you said skeptical in a sense, in terms of they're not so sure about all the facts or what's going on here. Or those who have a firm stance, say, “No, I firmly think this, and I think I have the evidence to back this up to say no to immunisation.” What's the difference? I imagine you have people who respond differently. What's it like?
Katie: Across Australia, obviously, the former organization formerly known as the Australian Vaccination Network, or the anti‑vaccination network as some of us call them, they spread a particular line. They are quite effective in doing that.
They and their ilk seem to capture a certain cohort of people who are embracing natural living. They're very health conscious. They're very skeptical about the interests represented by government, by the pharmaceutical industry, so they are doubtful that the immunisation schedule is designed to work in people's favor. That's your kind of hardcore, rusted‑on anti‑vaxers.
I don't find it particularly useful to engage with people like that. Look, given the opportunity to have a real, genuine discussion and not just a screaming match, then yes.
Kylie: Which is difficult sometimes, I know, especially with the Internet!
Katie: It is, it is! As an example, I'm running this public health campaign at the moment, which I'll talk about in a second.
I rang a yoga teacher in the Fremantle area to see whether she would be interested in displaying the posters, which are of course pro‑immunisation, but which are targeting that cohort that I was talking about—natural living and health‑conscious. I don't like to say hippies, because I don't really think of myself as a hippy, but yeah, I follow some of those practices as well!
I phoned her and said, “Would you be interested in displaying this poster?” I explained a bit more about who I was and the organization I was from.
She was like, “Oh, these posters are pro‑immunisation!”
I said, “Yes.” The reason I was slightly hopeful is that my yoga teacher is pro‑immunisation. It was actually through talking with her that I got the idea for this campaign. I was delighted to know there were people out there that shared my values and my lifestyle interests as well.
Kylie: Stereotypes don't stack up all the time.
Katie: Yeah, indeed. But this yoga teacher who I talked to on the phone then proceeded to say, “Oh, no. I wouldn't want to display the poster. I don't think that at all. I don't agree with immunisation at all.” Then she said to me, “Have you looked into it?”
I said, “Yes, yes, I have.” I just thought, “Oh, God. What kind of conversation can I even have with this person?”
The trouble is that most of the anti‑immunisation case is built on junk science. It's built on a house of cards. That's not to say that pharmaceutical companies are squeaky‑clean. That's not to say that there are not problems. That's not to say that vaccines don't come with a risk. Of course they do.
It's just that I, the Immunisation Alliance, and indeed the majority of the population believes that that risk is worth taking, because the alternative is so much worse. The alternative is death and destruction on a large scale. People become very complacent when they're not faced with that.
If many people were obliged to travel to other parts of the world where immunisation is not practiced and not funded by government, they would probably feel rather vulnerable about whether their homeopathic vaccines would protect them or whether their hand‑washing and breastfeeding would really keep their children safe.
Kylie: You're taking proactive steps—things such as posters, reaching out to groups that might not normally be open to the discussion, and perhaps trying to catch some attention for the group and for the messages. How do you deal with misconceptions without alienating or insulting people?
Katie: That's a good question. This particular campaign that I'm talking with you about tonight is called the “I Immunise” campaign. That's one of only three particular projects that the alliance is running.
Kylie: One of three? That's huge. That's massive. Wow.
Katie: It's the one that's my job to run, so it's the one that I'm utterly consumed by. I'll just briefly tell you that we have a couple of others, because that will give you an idea of the scope of what we do.
We're running an Aboriginal‑indigenous project, which has its own project officer, as well. Her job is to consult with community and people here in the metro area in Perth, and develop a resource that's going to assist local Aboriginal people with accessing immunisations.
The rates for Aboriginal people in WA and in Perth are lower than the national average. Obviously, there's a completely different set of barriers that is preventing them from accessing immunisation. The job of that particular project is to suss out what some of those barriers are and come up with a resource that's going to help people get access.
Access can be informed by many factors. Obviously, it's not our job to design and deliver the system, the schedule. Our job is to say if there's anything that can be done to help people get into wherever those places are, that prompts that to be something in the forefront of their minds. That's where we want to come in with that.
A second project is a book project. One of our members has a background in commercial writing. She's written a children's book, using the correct technical terms. Her big thing was, she didn't want to dumb it down. We're getting illustrations done, and we're getting a certain amount produced, which will go out as a pilot to schools in WA.
I'm not exactly sure on the delivery data of that, but it's not in the next two or three months. It will be a little while away. That's another project.
Then there's my project, which is “I Immunise.” My project, as I mentioned earlier, really grew out of my politicisation around vaccines. It grew out of my feeling of alienation and frustration with my community.
I had a home birth with my second child. I wasn't a massively long‑term breast feeder, but longer than most. I used cloth nappies with my second child and wore both of my children. With my second child in particular, because I had him at home, I became not more radical—that's not the right word—but less mainstream I suppose.
With my first child, I used disposable nappies and a dummy. I obviously still breastfed and still wore her, but I wanted too…
Kylie: Try a different approach.
Katie: Yes, but what I was aware of was that I was shifted away from the mainstream by my peers and that I was exposed to new practices that I was attracted to and had been attracted to but had not yet been game to try out. Sitting with it there and having a new friend explain how cloth nappies work, how you wash them, how you look after them.
I'm not the kind of person who actually likes to read a lot of stuff, especially on the computer. If I want to learn something, I like to learn by talking. My peers in my community taught me how to do things like that. Baby wearers can be really frightening—I don't mean the people, I mean the structures, the garments, can be quite frightening!
There were wonderful people, just friends, or friends of friends, who could help me learn all those things. I became very aware, as I was shifted away from the mainstream, how much I valued what my peers taught me, and how there would be certain experts on certain things. Maybe in some ways I enjoyed becoming the cloth nappy expert after that to new friends having babies.
I learned that we are herd animals. Even those of us who are not in the mainstream, we are herd animals, too. What frightened me about my new herd was, when the topic of immunisation came up, I was pretty much the only voice in the room in favor. That really frightened me, and I became quite emotional.
The question I was asking myself was, “Aren't we supposed to be ethical? Aren't we supposed to be concerned about the world around us? Aren't we supposed to be concerned about the well‑being of other people?” I know parents and parents of young babies; you're incredibly focused on your own infant and your own family. That is the most important thing in the world to you.
But you're not using cloth nappies because your baby is going to be so much better off. You're using cloth nappies because you don't want a pile of nappies in a landfill somewhere with your name on them. You're actually connecting and thinking about the world around you, the world you're leaving behind.
This is what the opinion piece was about that I wrote and was published in the Fremantle Herald. It was saying I don't really understand why immunisation is actually something that people are avoiding and staying away from, when to me it's entirely in keeping with being an ethical person, living an ethical life, and living by one's values.
I especially felt that because I felt that people were hiding inside the herd. They were hiding inside the herd of the “boring mainstream people” who don't think about anything, and just buy their Huggies and use their dummies.
Kylie: Go along with the status quo and don't think about being green.
Katie: I actually felt that was pretty low to free-ride off people, who one believed (simultaneously) to be superior to. I felt there was something a bit off about that. That was what drove my particular passion. I had this idea forming in my mind for a long time, and I shared it with the Immunisation Alliance, when I'd been involved for around a year.
I remember being at a planning meeting and drawing a poster. It was just a terrible line drawing on a whiteboard of my yoga teacher. It just talked about her and said that she was a yoga teacher, that she home‑birthed, and then it said that she immunised.
Although she didn't end up being in the campaign, that's what the campaign now is. It features six individuals, one of whom is me. I advertised through social media for these people. Several of them I knew anyway.
We, as a cohort, share what we do. On these posters, we talk about what we do. We all do different things. To the extent that we identify as alternative, we do that in different ways, but we definitely are appealing to a certain identity or a certain lifestyle of person. We're saying, “We do all this stuff that you do and that you value, and we immunise our children. We value that, too, and this is why.”
The “This is why...” component will be found on our website. The posters just list what we do and say that we immunise. Then you go to the website and you find out why.
Kylie: It's a multifaceted approach that you've got here. Not only are you caring about indigenous health, you're looking at the perspective of children; but then you've also got that personal touch, as well. Looking at what connects us rather than having the idea of the faceless scientist saying, “Put jabs into yourself. I know what's best for you!”
Katie: That's really important. I remember watching a documentary that was really an anti‑vax documentary, which was American. I can't remember its name, but I believe it was available free on the Internet and may still be.
It purported to be representing both sides, but the reason I was so clear that it wasn't was that the anti side was represented in these terrible personal stories that were not, I should add, always verified by scientists.
Yes, vaccine injuries do occur. Of course, they're horrible stories for anybody to see and hear. But not everyone in it was vaccine‑injured in the way that would be recognized, understood, and verified. The only people talking the pro side were these talking heads—scientists and doctors.
The Alliance and this campaign are so incredibly important because the pro side of vaccines has a human face. It's mostly really banal. It's, “Look! Look at my two healthy children!” What a non‑story! But it's the most important story because they're safe, they're protected, and they're protecting everybody else.
For me it's really, really important that the community claims this space. That's why even though things like “No jab, no play,” and the campaigns that are taken up by often your more populist media. Even though they can have quite a snipey tone or a supposed anti‑elite tone, and even though they can be divisive, ultimately I'm not sure that they are effective, and I suspect they're possibly not effective.
Despite all of that, I nevertheless can't help but warm to them because to me it's the herd speaking up. It's the herd saying we do have to look after each other.
Kylie: We care…
Katie: Yeah, we care and we have a responsibility. That is a human story, and I really connect to that.
Kylie: What's up next for the Immunisation Alliance of Western Australia?
Katie: Well, it's going to be a big year for us because all our campaigns will be rolling out in 2014.
Kylie: Wow! It's going to be a busy year!
Katie: Yeah, it is. We've been through a lot of ups and downs as an organization. We have staff now, but for a long time we didn't. A lot of hard work is done by volunteers. The leadership and management of our organization is all done by people not just who are volunteers but who have huge day jobs—hugely important and stressful day jobs.
Our future is, hopefully, continuing to grow. We are always looking for new members in the community. We meet once a month in Cockburn Central, which is on the train line. We meet in the evening. People who want to get involved don't necessarily have to be able to commit to come to those meetings, although it would be awesome if they did. Seriously, when I got involved I was a mum of two, I was doing my PhD, I was also teaching at university.
Kylie: Were you super woman as well? Oh my god!
Katie: No, I really wasn't! They kept saying, “Just come to a meeting, just come.”
I was like, “Look, I really can't. I really can't put my hand up and do anything else,”
Then finally I thought, “You know what, I'm never going to be less busy. I'm never going to have more time.” I used to go to one two‑hour meeting a month.
I didn't do anything outside of that time. I barely looked at the emails. I just went along. For those two hours a month, I learned. I talked to people. I listened as we sit around and talk at the table. This is what we try to do with our new members as well.
I'm not an expert in vaccines or anything, but we try and share the knowledge that we have. Literally, for me it was such a small investment of my time. It's grown into something personally so satisfying and so awesome for me. Many great opportunities have come to me having been involved.
I would urge any of your readers who are in Western Australia and who are passionate about this issue to consider coming along to one of our meetings and seeing what we do. It could be that small a commitment. We make a lot of important decisions around that table. You wonder how much you could possibly do in two hours a month, but because we now have staff who can do the doing of our work, then being part of that brain trust is a really great opportunity.
The story of the Jersey Devil has become layered with myths and variations, obscuring the original events that gave rise to it. Not surprising considering the story comes from colonial-era political intrigue, Quaker religious infighting, and a future Founding Father.
Most skeptics and students of the outré know the story of the Jersey Devil. Sometime in the early part of the eighteenth century in the New Jersey forest called the Pine Barrens, a woman known as Mother Leeds gave birth to her thirteenth child and cried out, “Oh, let this one be a devil!” The “child” arrived with horse-like head and bat-like wings. It yelped menacingly and flew up and out of the chimney, disappearing into the dark to spend the centuries accosting anyone unfortunate enough to encounter it. The commonly held story of the Jersey Devil bears no resemblance to any sort of reality, however. The story is one born not of a blaspheming mother, but of colonial era political intrigues, Quaker religious in-fighting, almanac publishing, a cross-dressing royal governor, family reputations, and Benjamin Franklin.
There are legions of books and websites devoted to the Jersey Devil, but they rehash material or copy other websites without any attempt to verify sources or check original materials. If you looked to the historical record with the keyword of Jersey Devil, you would find little factual or reliable evidence. Reviews of newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides from colonial New Jersey show no references to a Leeds Devil (see below) or anything like it. Reports of children killed by the creature or an attempt by a local clergyman to “exorcise” the Leeds Devil in the eighteenth century have no supporting documentation (also the central protagonists, the Quakers, did not perform exorcisms). As a result, the story of the Jersey Devil’s origin has been shrouded in monster tales that obscure the far more interesting historical events. Here is a reassessment of the mythos.Daniel Leeds
The European settlement of New Jersey, originally named Nova-Caesaria, began in the 1620s. Settlers came predominantly from England. They were mostly members of the religious order the Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers. They were delighted to discover large tracts of land all but empty of people nestled between Manhattan and Philadelphia. The first royal governor of New Jersey, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury (1661–1723), is remembered as one of the most vilified and hated governors of colonial America. He also stands accused of being a cross-dresser. A portrait believed to be Cornbury hangs in the New York Historical Society and shows him dressed as his aunt, Queen Anne. However, a recent reappraisal of his gubernatorial career shows there is little but slander and innuendo concerning Cornbury’s cross-dressing. Regardless of whether Cornbury was a fiscal scoundrel or a cross-dresser, his connection to the Jersey Devil story is tangential but important.
When Lord Cornbury received his orders to take charge of New Jersey in 1702, the document included a list of his councilors, one of whom was Daniel Leeds (1651–1720). Born in Leeds, England, Daniel Leeds arrived in Burlington in 1677. A devout Quaker, he claimed to have had ecstatic visions as a young man. His first wife died while in England, so he married a second time in 1681. This wife, Ann Stacy, gave birth to a daughter, though neither survived the birth. He then married Dorothy Young, who also died, though not before producing eight children by 1699. He married a final time to Jane Abbot-Smout. In 1682, Daniel Leeds joined the local assembly. He also held the title of surveyor general. In the 1690s he surveyed and acquired land in the Great Egg Harbor near the Atlantic coast. He handed this property down to his sons as a family seat, and it came to be known as Leeds Point: the location most associated with the Jersey Devil legend.The Leeds Almanac
Daniel Leeds began publishing an almanac in 1687. It was printed by the Englishman William Bradford (1663–1752), one of colonial America’s first printers. Leeds’s astrological data did not please all his readers. Several members of the Quaker Meeting complained that Leeds had used inappropriate language and astrological symbols and names that were a little too “pagan.” The notion of predicting the movements of the heavens did not sit well with Quaker theology. He went to the next meeting and publically apologized. To his surprise an order was sent out to collect up all the copies of the almanac not in circulation and destroy them. Daniel Leeds determined privately to break with the Friends and continue his almanac.?Daniel Leeds first published his almanac in 1687. His astrological material so outraged his Quaker neighbors they tried to have it burned.
Brimming with the need to get his ideas out and a growing resentment of his fellow Quakers, Leeds put together a book called The Temple of Wisdom (1688). Leeds paraphrased and outright copied large sections of other authors to cobble together a personal cosmology. He included sections on angels, natural magic, astrology, and the behavior of devils. The source he drew upon most was the work of the German mystic Jacob Boehme (1575–1624) whose first book, Aurora (1612), was considered heretical. Boehme’s writings focused upon the nature of sin and redemption. Leeds saw Boehme as a kindred spirit: a self-taught man who, like himself, had experienced ecstatic visions, been called before religious authorities for his work, and rebelled against the establishment. Defending his astrological writings using Boehme’s words, Leeds said, “Everyone that will speak or teach of divine mysteries, that we have the spirit of God.”
Taken in the aggregate the published work of Daniel Leeds shows him to be a Christian occultist. He was no dark magician though. He used astrology to gain deeper insight into the workings of God and the meaning of Christianity. The readers of his work would have been unfamiliar with the esoteric nature of his writings, so they saw more occultist than Christian in him. The Quaker Philadelphia Meeting immediately suppressed the Leeds book. Now at odds with the Friends, Leeds produced the first in a line of outright anti-Quaker tracts, The Trumpet Sounded Out of the Wilderness of America (1699). Leeds argued that Quaker theology denied the divinity of Christ, and he accused Quakers of being antimonarchists. He left the Quakers in part because, he said, “They formerly exclaimed against the government of England.”Having taken over from his father to publish the almanac, Titan Leeds added the family crest which contained a creature not unlike later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.
Leeds was heavily invested in local politics, leaning toward royal authority. In one instance Leeds advised Lord Cornbury to not swear in several members appointed to the assembly by local election. The rest of the assembly complained to Cornbury about these “groundless accusations” but to no avail. The Quakers saw the Anglican Governor Cornbury as a local tyrant representing the larger empire who sought to keep them under control and who opposed their religion. When Daniel Leeds, as one of their own, sided with Cornbury the Quakers saw him as a turncoat. Leeds also backed other anti-Quakers such as George Keith (1638–1716), an early member of the Society of Friends who knew founder George Fox and William Penn and who soured on the Friends and began preaching that the Quakers had strayed too far for proper Christianity. Keith was disowned by the London Friends and eventually converted to Anglicanism, as did Daniel Leeds.
After a series of Leeds’s anti-Quaker pamphlets such as The Innocent Vindicated from the Falsehoods and Slanders of Certain Certificates (1695), George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, responded to Leeds’s accusations with The Case Put and Decided (1699) in which he argued that Quakerism stood unjustly accused of any theological wrongdoing. Leeds was also accused by the Burlington Meeting of being “evil.” Another defense of Quakerism appeared as Satan’s Harbinger Encountered … Being Something by Way of Answer to Daniel Leeds (1700). With this pamphlet Leeds stood publically accused of working for the devil.Images of creatures similar to the Jersey Devil were already being published in political and satirical pamphlets in the 1640s. This one from England was startling and well known.
Daniel Leeds continued to publish his almanac and quarrel with the Quakers until 1716 when he retired and turned the business over to his son Titan Leeds (1699–1738). In 1728, Titan redesigned the masthead to include the Leeds family crest, which contained three figures on a shield. Dragon-like with a fearsome face, clawed feet, and bat-like wings, the figures, known as Wyverns, are suspiciously reminiscent of the later descriptions of the Jersey Devil. Titan Leeds then found himself in one of the most notorious almanac feuds of them all. The up and coming Philadelphia printer—and soon-to-be Founding Father—Benjamin Franklin entered the almanac game in 1732 with Poor Richard’s Almanac. As competitors in a lucrative market, the upstart Franklin decided to go after his established rival to boost sales. In the 1733 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin used astrological techniques to predict that Titan Leeds would die on October 17 of that year.
Franklin approached this “feud” in a humorous vein while Leeds took it seriously. He retaliated in the Leeds Almanac by saying that Franklin “has manifest himself a fool and a lyar [sic]” for his antics. Franklin replied with mock outrage and hurt, saying Leeds was “too well bred to use any man so indecently and so scurrilously,” therefore the person saying these things must not be Titan Leeds but a creature from the spirit world. He went on to say that he had “receiv’d much abuse from the ghost of Titan Leeds.” Even after Titan Leeds finally died in 1738, Franklin responded to his own creation that “Honest Titan, deceased, was raised [from the dead] and made to abuse his old friend [Franklin].” Largely out of fun, Benjamin Franklin had publically cast his rival almanac publisher as a ghost, brought back from the great beyond to haunt his enemies. It is interesting to note that the traditionally believed period of the “birth” of the Jersey Devil (the mid-1730s) coincides with the death of Titan Leeds.The Jersey Devil
The Pine Barrens, that area of New Jersey with its thick and seemingly impenetrable forests, dark and forbidding in the heat of summer, mysterious yet beautiful in the snows of winter, so unlike the industrial, urban blight most associated with the state, make a fine place for the birth of a monster. During the pre-Revolutionary period, the Leeds family, who called the Pine Barrens home, soured its relationship with the Quaker majority. The Leeds almanac was seen as inappropriate while his Temple of Wisdom bordered on the heretical, and he was publically accused of being Satan’s harbinger. His other writings such as The Trumpet Sounded attacked Quakerism and its founder George Fox directly. The Quakers saw no hurry to give their former fellow religionist an easy time in circles of gossip. His wives had all died, as had several children. His son Titan stood accused by Benjamin Franklin of being a ghost, and of having been resurrected from the grave. The family crest had winged dragons on it. In a time when thoughts of independence were being born, these issues made the Leeds family political and religious monsters. From all this over time the legend of the Leeds Devil was born. References to the Jersey Devil do not appear in newspapers or other printed material until the twentieth century. The first major flap came in 1909. It is from these sightings that the popular image of the creature—batlike wings, horse head, claws, and general air of a dragon—became standardized.
The elements that led to the creation of the Jersey Devil are by and large unknown to even monster aficionados. The Quaker rivalries, the almanac wars, Daniel Leeds and his son Titan, as well as their monstrous family crest drifted into the mists of time, leaving only the vague notion of a frightening denizen of the Pine Barrens. Even the Leeds Devil was all but forgotten, its fragile memory remodeled into the cartoonish “Jersey Devil” while Mother Leeds, as much a phantom as her supposed offspring, materialized out of the forests of Leeds Point. In the twenty-first century, as rubes search the woods off the Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway for a bat-winged beast, the ghosts of Daniel Leeds and his family may just be watching and smiling at the absurdity of it all.
I want to give some brief historical perspective about the skeptical movement, take a look at some new trends, and revisit a theme I’ve emphasized before, reminding ourselves why we do this: the higher values of skeptical inquiry.
Known somewhat affectionately throughout our first three decades as CSICOP, the Committee was founded on May 1, 1976, at a major conference on “The New Irrationalisms” called by philosophy professor Paul Kurtz at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It was the first organized effort by scientists, scholars, and investigators from all relevant fields of intellectual inquiry, worldwide, to unite in exploring and combatting credulous belief in pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.
This, some of you may recall, was an era of rampant belief in astrology (“the Age of Aquarius”), Velikovsky and his planetary pinballs, von Däniken and ancient astronauts, birthdate-based biorhythms, the supposed Bermuda Triangle, pyramid power, and copious other unexamined nonsense. Uri Geller was everywhere bending cutlery and fooling even some physicists into thinking he had supernormal powers.
I covered that conference as editor of Science News magazine and the next year was invited to become editor of CSICOP’s journal, the Skeptical Inquirer. It has been my honor to have been its editor ever since.
On our thirtieth anniversary in 2006, Paul Kurtz himself did a major retrospective review of the committee and the Skeptical Inquirer (SI, September/October 2006). At the time of our founding, Kurtz recalled, “There was tremendous public fascination” with the paranormal and it was “heavily promoted and sensationalized by an often irresponsible media.” (I leave it to you to decide whether those conditions now differ.) “Our interest,” Kurtz stressed, “was not simply in the paranormal curiosity shop but to increase an understanding of how science works.”
We thus appealed to scientists and scholars to engage with the public not only in investigating popular claims that involved misunderstandings of science but in explicating the higher values of science and critical inquiry.
That broad spectrum of interest and emphasis still typifies us and most of the skeptical movement today. We skeptics do it all, investigating the smallest strange mysteries that fascinate the public while also explaining the powerful tools of science and reason and applying them to thinking about the broadest issues of concern and confusion in today’s complex societies.
Just as science is internationalist and scientific principles know no boundaries, the misrepresentations of science that concern us observe no national borders. It was fitting therefore that Paul Kurtz (who died a year ago, on October 20, 2012, at the age of eighty-six) always advanced an internationalist perspective. Kurtz was an international ambassador for skepticism and humanism and free and open critical inquiry. He tirelessly traveled the world and encouraged skeptics everywhere to organize their own groups. They did. In his retrospective he expressed “great satisfaction that the Skeptical Inquirer is read throughout the world and that CSICOP has helped generate new skeptics groups, magazines, newsletters almost everywhere—from Australia and China to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Nigeria; from Indian, Eastern Europe, and Russia to Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom, so that the Center for Inquiry/Transnational (including CSICOP) has become truly planetary in scope.” More nations can now be added to that list. We can of course debate to what degree this encouragement led to the flowering of new groups and to what degree they flowered on their own.
In his later years, Kurtz convinced himself—but few others—that interest in the paranormal had diminished. “No one is interested in the paranormal anymore,” he would proclaim. We would either demur or just smile. What had happened, I think, was twofold: First, his interest in the paranormal and pseudoscience had diminished, and he was now devoting most of his energy to bringing his profound vision of a positive, affirmative secular humanism informed by the findings of science to broader arenas of public—or as he put it, planetary—relevance. In a way, I sympathized with him; many of our academic colleagues blanched at even a semantic connection to anything paranormal—I didn’t like it much myself. In fact in September 2006 we on the CSICOP Executive Council took “paranormal” out of the name and mission statement of our Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, shortening the name to just Committee for Skeptical Inquiry—and unfortunately almost losing the acronym, and brand, CSICOP.
But second, the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of new cable and satellite television channels by the hundreds brought an insatiable demand for new programming with mass appeal. Paranormal themes eagerly helped fill the need. Paranormal programming wasn’t visible in quite the same classic way via books and newspapers and network TV that worried us before; it appeared now on smaller stages, but the stages had multiplied geometrically. Nowadays you can’t channel hop without encountering ridiculous pseudoscientific shows touting haunted houses and ghost-hunting, searching for monsters, mystery-mongering about supposed aliens and UFOs, or showing so-called psychics pretending to find missing persons or communicate with the dead. It’d be amusing if it wasn’t so sad. Interest in the paranormal hasn’t diminished at all. It just fragmented and proliferated. It is everywhere.
So psychics, UFOs, monsters, and their ilk continue to pop up like the unsinkable rubber ducks they are. But there have been some new themes since we began. Back then, “alternative and complementary medicine” didn’t even exist, at least not as a respectable-sounding term. We called it quackery or snake oil. Or bad medicine. Now it has become all polite and gentrified, and our medical schools and research institutes, funded publicly, give nods of obeisance to it, providing undeserved respectability.
Let’s at least adopt our colleague Dr. Harriet Hall’s term “So-Called Alternative and Complementary Medicine” with its acronym “SCAM” or just follow the clear advice of Dr. Paul Offit, in his fine new book Do You Believe in Magic? : “The truth is, there is no such thing as conventional or alternative or complementary or integrative or holistic medicine. There’s only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.”
But this “medicine that doesn’t work” has become an enormous industry that requires continuing critical examination. Thankfully many physicians have become active in the skeptical community, even leaders (many of them associated with CSI), and their barrages of critiques are now putting some needed skeptical balance and perspective on the matter.
Another new theme: conspiracy theories. Conspiracy thinking has always been around but not in the endemic way in which it now pollutes almost every aspect of public discourse. Conspiracies about what? Just about everything.
Distrust in government and all public institutions is at high levels, not without some reason, but conspiratorial thinking is not just due to that. It is a way of not thinking. It is a pernicious way of shaping a preconceived personal worldview so that it is immune from criticism. Absence of evidence for the theory is perceived as evidence of the conspiracy (to withhold the evidence). That is not critical thinking. That is the opposite of critical thinking. (And yes, we all know there are real conspiracies in the world; critical thinking is required to separate them from imagined ones.)
The new challenge to scientific skepticism I found most surprising was opposition to climate science. Climate scientists’ findings that the Earth is warming and that that this warming is likely to continue for the foreseeable future due to the steady increase of greenhouse gases seems to most of us straightforward science. But, as you know, the conclusions have engendered passionate opposition, even denial in some quarters. Because of this gap between scientific evidence and public perception, we’ve been involved with this topic in the Skeptical Inquirer since 2007. This topic differs from the others because a few of our fellow skeptics are among the critics of climate science. No science is perfect, especially a young science like climatology, but its findings are far more robust than its critics want to admit. We have tried to be respectful of those skeptic colleagues who honestly question the findings of climate science; they think, I am sure, that they are being good skeptics. (In this case I’d prefer to call them contrarians.) But I believe they are seeing the science through their own ideological filters. . . and that can be dangerous. Especially so when in so many nonscientific forums they seem to trust the science is being denigrated and distorted and opposition to it is being encouraged by some of the same powerful political propaganda machines that have supported the tobacco lobby in the past and continue to fund creationists today.
Another new strand is apocalyptic thinking. Whether global contagions, environmental collapse, collisions with nonexistent rogue planets, alien invasions, or zombies, something ends our world and civilization. Perhaps this is a subset of conspiracy thinking. In any event it is endemic in our popular culture at the moment, and I worry, just a bit anyway, about the effect on young people growing up with the idea, formerly confined mostly to religious zealots, that the world has no future.
So those are some new current strands to go along with the old, perennial ones that constantly crop up using new terms and new disguises, as when “Intelligent Design” tried (ultimately unsuccessfully) to replace old-fashioned creationism or “anomalous cognition” was proffered for claims of psychic powers.
But again, our interest has never been just debunking the paranormal or exposing the delusions of its promoters and followers. Instead it is to encourage an appreciation for the scientific outlook, with its innate initial open-minded skepticism toward new claims to knowledge, its creative tools for teasing out the truths about nature, and its reliance on high-quality evidence and informed peer criticism in assessing the results.
Some of these larger topics and issues, as I wrote when announcing our new Committee for Skeptical Inquiry name (SI, January/February 2007), include:
…how our beliefs in such things arise, how our minds work to deceive us, how we think, how our critical thinking capabilities can be improved, what are the answers to certain uninvestigated mysteries, what damage is caused by uncritical acceptance of untested claims, how critical attitudes and scientific thinking can be better taught, how good science can be encouraged and bad science exposed, and on and on.
As for SI and CSI, Kurtz always encouraged these efforts to broaden our scope and apply the tools of scientific inquiry to newly emerging issues where there is public confusion and where the tools of evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking can be of service. As he said, “We originally criticized pseudoscientific, paranormal claims because we thought that they trivialized and distorted the meaning of genuine science.” (That was my concern as well.) But, he continued, “Many of the attacks on the integrity and independence of science today come from powerful political-theological-moral doctrines.”
Likewise, as I have written in a Skeptical Inquirer essay, “In Defense of the Higher Values” (July/August 2006), the new areas we are concerned about “arise from deep-seated ideologies. They arise from a dangerous capturing of mainstream, liberal, open-minded religious viewpoints by those with far more extreme, narrow, rigid, authoritarian religious viewpoints. They arise from a devoted determination to impose those viewpoints on everyone else.” (Both Kurtz’s SI essay I’ve been referring to and mine are reprinted in our latest SI anthology, Science Under Siege, Prometheus Books 2009.)
These attacks are on the open-minded tolerance of others different from oneself; on education and the love of learning and the quest for new knowledge; on a free and open society’s distrust of dogma and authority; on freedom of expression and a clear separation of church and state; on the basic rights of women to make their own choices; and on a deep appreciation of education as a progressive force for enlightenment and improvement.
So what we science-minded skeptics are defending here goes way beyond any of the specific bizarre ideas, trumped-up mysteries, or misperceptions or misrepresentations of the real world we may critique. What we are defending, I have written before and I reiterate here, are hard-won concepts essential to a free and open society—if that society is to have well-informed citizens capable of making wise decisions in a complex technological world. Among them:
• Reason and rationality.
• Respect for the scientific outlook.
• The skeptical attitude, a key component of scientific thinking, with its obligations to put all new assertions to tests of empirical evidence.
• The traditions of learning—real learning, deep and broad, and unfettered.
• The deepest traditions of democracy—valuing individual freedom, human dignity and rights, and treasuring the free and open interplay of ideas.
So when we get tired, or discouraged, take heart that our travail has purpose and meaning. And we can draw inspiration from others facing challenges far beyond ours. Consider the courageous example of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head last year by the Taliban for advocating the education of girls.
At the United Nations in July, Malala said she is not against anyone, she is for “the education of girls and boys, especially the children of the Taliban.”
“The extremists are afraid of books and pens,” she said. “The power of education frightens them. . . .The power of the voice of women frightens them. . . . Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”
I am not suggesting that skeptics plunge into these kinds of life-and-death situations. (Some do, like Malala, and have paid a big price, witness the August 20 murder of Indian rationalist and skeptic Dr. Naredra Dabholkar.) My point is that skepticism, and its advocacy of learning and critical thought, exists along a continuum that includes crucially meaningful matters.
If this sixteen-year-old can endure and enlighten and inspire on the world stage, we can forge ahead with our modest efforts to bring a modicum of reason and rationality to a modern world still fighting ancient strands of ignorance and intolerance.
It is hard to turn on the television today without coming across a program about ghosts and the paranormal. These shows might shine an entertaining light on the unknown, but they are often more about their cast of characters and investigators than the science of parapsychology.
Since the 1920s, when Thomas Edison hinted that he might have attempted to build a “ghost machine” to communicate with the dead, some have tried to apply a scientific method to proving the existence of life after death. So far this has been unsuccessful, and to this day every group of investigators, both amateur and professional, has their own set of protocols as to what is or is not considered paranormal (see Sharon Hill’s “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things,” SI, March/April 2012).
With no universally accepted methods of investigating the paranormal, the beliefs of investigators can greatly influence the outcomes of their own investigations. Some investigators believe removing objects from a location will end a possible haunting. Others use objects to capture spirits, and psychic investigators believe spirits can be blessed or cast away. None of these methods have been scientifically proven, yet every investigator claims that the method they use is successful.
In pursuit of scientifically verifiable evidence, tools of all types have been employed. Many theories about detecting paranormal activity have been tested using everything from dowsing rods to Geiger counters. While the evidence they provide is scientifically debated, some tools such as audio recorders have become popular mainstays of the paranormal investigator.
The art of recording EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, is one of the most widely accepted methods of collecting evidence. Originally, a portable tape recorder was used to record an investigator asking a series of questions and waiting for responses in the silence following each question. After the EVP session, the tape was played back and investigators listened for intelligent and relevant responses caught on the tape but not audible to the ear at the time. The theory is that spirits do not have enough energy to create sounds audible to the human ear but can leave impressions on the tape.
As technology advanced, digital recorders replaced tape recorders, and investigators began processing the recordings through computer programs and filters. Using these filters, background noise could be eliminated and frequencies isolated. Hypothetically this made it easier to hear the spirit voices. Lacking any scientific protocol, some investigators began manipulating the speed of the recordings. Their belief is that ghosts exist on a different dimensional plane than the living and would communicate in a different frequency range. In their opinion this means that the recordings need to be sped up or slowed down to hear any responses.
Some investigators began processing their recordings so much that to an independent listener it might be impossible to tell the difference between a response and ambient noise manipulated and processed into sounding like intelligent communication. At the other end of the EVP spectrum are recordings of investigators asking questions and the responses that they get are so obvious and clear without any processing that the recordings are either intentional hoaxes or definitive proof of life after death.
In its current form, the recording of electronic voice phenomena is more of an art than a science. With no accepted protocols, results are often vague and left to personal interpretation. Why would some spirits communicate on different frequencies and at different speeds while other spirits are able to give a response that sounds almost as if they are standing in front of the recorder? Scientifically it stands to reason that spirits would respond one way or the other and that method would be universal within the spirit world.
What happens after we die may be an unanswerable question, but as the interest in parapsychology grows it is time for both believers and skeptics to look at the field and begin to adapt some universal protocols for its study. Until these are created, real evidence and data are going to get lost in a soup of frauds, natural phenomena, and poor science.
Anyone who follows news stories about UFOs knows that there are a heck of a lot of them these days, and that many of them involve photographs. Frank Warren of The UFO Chronicles has written an eye-opening article, “UFO Hoaxes with the Touch of a Finger” (http://tinyurl.com/UFOapp). Warren is well known as a UFO proponent, but he is no friend to hoaxers. I knew that it was possible to create all manner of digital UFOs in photographs. What I did not realize was just how easy it has become. Warren notes that there are many iPhone and/or Android apps written specifically for inserting UFOs into photos:
• UFO Camera gold
• UFO Photo Prank (also sometimes called UFO Revelator or OVNICA).
• UFO Camera
• UFO Photo Bomb
• Camera 360
Most of these apps allow you to select the UFO you wish to add, size it, and place it where you want it to be. One of the UFO choices in UFO Camera Gold is my very own Cottage Cheese Container UFO, published many times, that can be seen on my Skeptics’ UFO Page (http://debunker.com/ufo.html). Some of these apps can insert aliens into your photos as well. Warren cites two examples of credulous UFO news stories that have been written about fake photos made with apps just like these. It’s true that these are not great-quality fakes. Warren says, “For most seasoned Ufologists the hoaxed photos are blatantly obvious; unfortunately, that minority won’t stop the MSM [mainstream media] from paying heed to the latest hokum produced.” Unfortunately, he is quite correct: it seems that some of the most credulous people around are reporters, who are supposed to be skeptical by their profession. I suspect that the cynical pursuit of sensationalism and ratings is really behind that.
What all this means is that it is now trivially easy for just about anyone to produce a semi-convincing UFO photo hoax. And since “progress” in software is inevitable, we can expect to see better and better UFO hoax photos with each passing year. Which means: unless you can absolutely confirm a photo’s origin, and confirm that a UFO was not simply added using hoaxing software, you can’t believe anything that you see in a supposed UFO photo any longer.
* * *
On June 20, 2013, news outlets reported that the British Ministry of Defense (MoD), which closed down its UFO Sightings desk in 2009, had just released the very last of its UFO files into the public domain. You can read the files at http://ufos.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. One would expect that well-known UFO proponents, who have been hollering for “UFO disclosure” for years, would be delighted. If so, one would be wrong. Nick Pope, for example, is very upset, and so are many others.
Nick Pope is a major UFO celebrity, originally from the United Kingdom but now living in the United States. He claims that he was skeptical of UFOs prior to his work at the MoD UFO desk (there never was such a thing as a “UFO Project”), but in fact Pope believes he was abducted by aliens during a trip to Florida in January 1991, before he began working for the MoD. The Sunday Times of London reported on February 7, 1999, that
The Ministry of Defence official who once headed investigations into unidentified flying objects believes he was abducted by aliens. Nick Pope, who [allegedly] ran the ministry’s top secret Airstaff Secretariat office during the early 1990s, believes that he, his girlfriend and their car were abducted from a deserted toll road in Florida. He has described how he was lifted aboard an alien spacecraft and then wandered around its corridors—without, however, meeting any aliens.
In reality, while Pope claims he ran “the British Government’s UFO Project,” he didn’t run anything, and only worked part-time at the UFO Desk from 1991 to 1994. In the summer of 2012, Pope was in many news stories warning about a supposed “alien invasion” that could come at any time. He also warned of possible mass UFO appearances during the London Olympics.
Pope has recently been on the defensive, emphasizing that he did not actually predict an alien invasion, as many news stories and blogs reported in the summer of 2012. He said he was merely promoting a “space war” type of video game, and reporters took his comments out of context. However, he can’t explain away comments like, “The government must—and has planned—for the worst-case scenario: alien attack and alien invasion. Space shuttles, lasers and directed-energy weapons are all committed via the Alien Invasion War Plan to defence against any alien ships in orbit.” Just do an Internet search for “Nick Pope Alien Invasion,” which brings up many news stories, including this later one from October 12, 2012, “Britain has alien-war weapons, says former government adviser,” and even “Aliens Could Attack at Any Time” from 2006.
One reason that UFOlogists are upset is that the newly released UFO files contain nothing whatsoever of any real interest, and are in fact rather embarrassing to the pro-UFO side. As reported by the BBC:
Carl Mantell of the RAF’s Air Command, suggested the MoD should try to significantly reduce the UFO work. He said it was “consuming increasing resource, but produces no valuable defence output.” He told Mr. Ainsworth that in more than 50 years, “no UFO sighting reported to [the MoD] has ever revealed anything to suggest an extra-terrestrial presence or military threat to the U.K.” Among the 4,400 pages of documents released are:
• A letter from a school child in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, to the MoD, dated January 2009, asking if aliens exist after she had seen some strange lights, and including a drawing of an alien in a UFO waving.
• A report received via the UFO hotline by someone who had been “living with an alien” in Carlisle for some time.
• A report from a man from Cardiff who claimed a UFO abducted his dog, and took his car and tent, while he was camping with friends in 2007.
When my name was included on a list prepared by NASA during the 1970s and 1980s of people who had information on UFOs (since they did not), I used to receive dozens of letters like this. Most of the correspondence came from schoolchildren requesting information. I would usually reply with just a page or two of skeptical materials, but I suppose that was not what they wanted to receive.
David Clarke, according to The Telegraph (June 21, 2013), “has been the National Archives ‘UFO consultant’ for five year[s of the] project, during which it has made public more than 52,000 pages of official government files relating to mysterious sightings.” Clarke is a former reporter and currently course leader and senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University teaching media law and investigation skills. His PhD is in folklore from the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield. Since 2008, he has been working with The National Archives (TNA) as their consultant for the ongoing release of the UFO files created by Britain’s Ministry of Defence. Clarke says that
from 2000 onwards my FOI campaign made me a thorn in the side of the MoD to the extent that after seven years of constant pressure they relented and decided to transfer all surviving UFO papers to The National Archives. But instead of hailing the disclosure as a breakthrough, conspiracy nuts have portrayed it as a cover-up because the documents do not provide any support for their beliefs (http://tinyurl.com/pv6d6da).
Pope’s reply was quoted:
A claim by the British Ministry of Defence that UFOs have no defense significance is “designed solely to keep Parliament, the media and the public off our backs,” according to former MoD UFO Desk administrator Nick Pope. . . . Official MoD spokesmen and one self-styled UFO expert, David Clarke, claims that the MoD found no evidence of a UFO threat to the UK and, therefore, closed its UFO Desk. . . .
Regarding David Clarke, Pope says, “Some people would probably use the term ‘useful idiot’ to describe his parroting the MoD ‘no defense significance’ sound bite.”
Clarke had made a Freedom of Information request of the MoD for “copies of MoD papers, records, or other information relating to internal discussion, policy and/or briefings in response to public statements made to the media and via the release of Open Skies, Closed Minds by Nick Pope during the period 1995–96” (http://drdavidclarke.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/open-skies-closed-files.html).
As Clarke explained to Pope at the time, “my request was specifically for ‘internal comment on your Press interviews in 1996 and MoD’s discussion of what line to take’ and not for access to his private correspondence with his employers over the clearance of his manuscript (with one exception that concerns a specific letter which he had quoted from in the public domain).” Clarke’s request was not granted, and it turns out that the reason was that Pope “has written to the MoD and asked for the information not to be released into the public domain.”
So much for “full disclosure”!
As CSI’s Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell continued his work—now in the middle of his fifth decade—of investigating the world’s paranormal, historical, and forensic mysteries. A former stage magician, a twice-promoted operative for a world-famous detective agency, and a literary scholar (Ph.D. in English literature, with an emphasis on literary investigation and folklore), Nickell also has a strong background in both historical research and forensics. He is the author (or co-author or editor) of some forty books, including Unsolved History, Crime Science, and Looking for a Miracle. He has appeared on numerous television shows, such as Oprah, and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on the Today show.
In 2013 he published his latest book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible (Prometheus Books), dedicated in memory of humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz (1925–2012), “founder of the worldwide skeptics movement.” Physicist Victor J. Stenger (author of God and the Atom) called it “the magnum opus of the world’s top paranormal investigator.” And science writer Massimo Polidoro reported, “In this book, some of the most incredible supposed miracles are carefully examined by the watchful eye of the incomparable Joe Nickell, a magnificent storyteller and a splendid detective.” (Polidoro once labeled Nickell “The Detective of the Impossible.”)
The Science of Miracles was chosen by the BBC’s magazine Focus: Science and Technology for its June book-of-the-month selection. Illustrated by the face on the Shroud of Turin, the magazine’s review by Chris French stated: “There is probably no-one in the world better qualified to write a book assessing the evidence relating to alleged miracles than Joe Nickell. . . . Nickell brings a wide range of skills to the task, including expertise in forensics, psychology, handwriting analysis and folklore. The result is an expert evaluation of the world’s most famous miracle claims along with many lesser-known cases.” The review was accompanied by a “Meet the Author” interview.
In addition to his own book, Nickell contributed to others, for example, his affectionate cartoon of the late Martin Gardner (the father of modern skepticism) appearing in Gardner’s posthumously published autobiography, Undiluted Hocus Pocus. He also wrote the foreword for Edward Steers, Jr.’s Hoax: Hitler Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. And his work was cited in several other books.
Again and again, Nickell was filmed for television shows. He was profiled on Discovery Channel Canada’s Daily Planet, featured (explaining the Lake George monster hoax) on the Travel Channel’s Monumental Mysteries, and filmed for several segments of RAW TV’s The Unexplained Files (“Mothman,” alien abductions, spontaneous human combustion, etc.), as well as MSNBC’s Caught on Camera (Bigfoot, “Alien Autopsy,” Oklahoma Junkyard Ghost). On National Geographic Wild’s Monster Fish, Nickell recreated a famous historical faux photo of a giant catfish.
In addition, the popular Travel Channel series, Mysteries at the Museum, featured two items from Nickell’s personal collection of artifacts—online as CFI’s Skeptiseum (i.e., skeptical museum of the paranormal). One was an antique séance spirit trumpet, the other a scarce bottle (with contents, in its original box) of Clark Stanley’s infamous Snake Oil Liniment. (The Skeptiseum—now a member of the Small Museums Association—is presently being given a makeover. Should donor money become available, Nickell has acquired enough artifacts to at least triple the size of the Skeptiseum.)
Nickell also appeared as a guest on several radio programs, such as a panel discussion on superstitions (Charlotte, NC), an update on the Shroud of Turin (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), analysis of various miracle claims (Dublin, Ireland), and more. He was also interviewed on podcasts, including the BBC’s Science Focus, and for various blogs, including Live Science, Alkek Library News (Texas State University), and John W. Loftus’ Debunking Christianity. He was also interviewed (about Atlantis) by Slate.com, and (on after-death communication) by Legacy.com, and he wrote for the Huffington Post (an illustrated piece on “10 Fake Historical Miracles”).
Print and online news sources that sought Nickell’s expertise included the Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, Kansas City Star, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Raleigh News Observer, and many others. Nickell was the prominently featured skeptic regarding the notorious Shroud of Turin in an article in the National Catholic Register. (Unfortunately Nickell’s scientific and historical evidence was followed by a proponent’s smokescreen of pseudoevidence, pseudoscience, and clever rationalizations.)
In 2013, Nickell received two special awards. The first was CFI’s The Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking for his book, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead (Prometheus, 2012). The handsome plaque and $2500 are given “for a published work that best exemplifies a healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science.” In presenting the award, Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier said Nickell was “the epitome of a skeptical investigator,” adding: “Both in the quality and quantity of his investigations, he is a wonder, a true national treasure—international treasure really, because he investigates and is read everywhere he goes around the world. . . .”
Nickell also received the Charles Chilton Moore–John Scopes Award, presented by the Kentucky Freethought Convention. Recipients were honored for their work in science education and freethought. (With the late, great skeptic, psychologist Dr. Robert A. Baker, Nickell was a founder of the Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Skeptics.)
In addition, he gave many lectures and conference contributions (e.g., at the Pennsylvania State Atheist/Humanist 2013 Conference in Philadelphia, and the CFI Summit in Tacoma, Washington. Also, as he has annually for many years, he participated in Science Exploration Day for high school students held at the University at Buffalo. (On occasion his session, “Investigating ‘Paranormal’ Mysteries,” has been “the highest ranked” by the students.)
In Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, Nickell published the results of several of his investigations: the “miracle dirt” at Chimayó, New Mexico; famous Scotland mysteries (e.g., “The Silly Ness Monster,” the “Green Ghost” of Stirling Castle, and the remarkable “witch” Isobel Gowdie); and a history of detective and detectives (in and out of fiction), as well as a hands-on investigation of “psychokinetic” spoon bending. Also, he and Major James McGaha (USAF retired) provided an in-depth solution to a famous UFO cold case, “The Valentich Disappearance” and a seminal “Treatise on Invisible Beings,” with profound implications to many areas of the paranormal.
In Skeptical Briefs (CSI newsletter) and his blog, Investigative Briefs, Nickell reported on much of his other investigatory work. Highlights were “Tracking Florida’s Skunk Ape,” the “Miracle” statue of Fatima, a rare spiritualists photograph, the “haunted” Bell Witch Cave, the Turin “shroud,” and other investigations, including cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion, psychic sleuthery, communication with ETs, etc. Nickell also reported on receiving a certificate from “Bigfoot School,” and included among his blogs original poems, political cartoons, movie criticisms (“Nickell-odeon Reviews”) and various satires and comedy (?) pieces—intended for the skeptic and secular humanist (which he defines as “an atheist with a heart).”
A major, continuing investigative project of Nickell’s involves tracking what he affectionately calls “The Bigfoot Bear.” Analyzing over a thousand Bigfoot reports, he concluded that a great number are probably misidentifications of upright-standing bears—their common stance when in the alert mode. In 2013 Nickell went on excursions—as he has before at Bluff Creek, California, the Florida Panhandle, and elsewhere—into the Adirondacks of New York and the slopes (at 5,500 feet) of Washington’s Mount Rainier (the latter with a professional guide). These are all alleged wilderness homes for Bigfoot and definite habitats for its closest lookalike, “The Bigfoot Bear.” Nickell has completed further reports on the subject that await publication.
Meanwhile, Nickell continues work on numerous other investigations and has several articles and books in progress. And he continues to be sought frequently by the media. His website is at joenickell.com, and he is on Facebook and Twitter.