Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
I’m standing outside of a massage parlor/day spa/oxygen bar called Zen Zone in Universal City, California, with my adventure-partner Ross and his family of two. His son, Andrew, is ten, and looking at us like we’re idiots. His wife, Cara, smiles at us and says they’ll be back in half an hour.
“Do you want to watch?” Ross asks.
“We’ll be back in half an hour,” she repeats.
We snap a photo below the sign—I guess to prove that we don’t just make this stuff up—and enter. We’re not there for massages, which instantly sets us apart.
“Hi,” I say, “we just want to use the oxygen bar.”
“Oh, great!” says Gavin, the attendant (not his real name). “You sit here, and you sit here.” He puts us in front of machines that will allegedly ooze pure oxygen into our nostrils. Each one has four scents that can be added to the oxygen in any amount. Ross looks at his: peppermint, piña colada, strawberry, and watermelon.
“Aww, man, yours are better,” he says. He’s wrong. We switch.
Gavin is untangling some of those soft plastic things you see dangling from a hospital patients’ noses when they can’t breathe on their own. These will go in our nostrils, he explains. They will deliver us pure oxygen—double the amount we usually get in the air! It helps cure hangovers. (“Hangs-over,” I pretend to correct him, for no reason at all. He looks at me the way I should be looked at.) It ends fatigue. It helps with muscle pain and weakness. It curbs jet lag. It dissolves headaches. The headaches bit is pretty exciting for me. I have been getting chronic headaches for almost a year, and some of them become crippling migraines. I would suck on a garden hose for twenty minutes a day if it made those go away. Some places make even loftier claims about oxygen bars, like that they can help halt cancer or aid chi flow.
“I read that the oxygen gets rid of toxins,” I say. “What exactly are toxins?”
“You’ve got me there,” he says. “I’ve never heard of toxins.”
“Fair enough,” says Ross, giving me a look.
We put our soft plastic thingies in our noses and put the attached oxygen tubes behind our ears. I accidentally put mine around the crown of my head. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
“Your ears, not your head!” says Gavin. This happens a lot.
I get the tubing around my ears, and so does Ross. Gavin begins to tool with the knobs on the machines in front of us.
“Straight up noon, and that scent is at maximum. All the way on its side, and that scent is off. You can mix and match,” he says.
Two of mine are peppermint and piña colada. I crinkle my nose at the thought of combining them. Even though there are ten empty machines, Gavin has sat Ross at one with a broken knob. No matter what combination he chooses, a slow dribble of watermelon is included. He immediately likes a scent called Sex on the Beach. I identify strawberry as not-strawberry, but some sort of hospital smell. I quickly opt for all peppermint, all the time. Gavin is watching us, nodding and smiling.
“The other day I was so hungover,” he grins. “I came to work, hooked myself up to the oxygen. Few minutes later, bam, feeling good.”
“That’s impressive,” I say, trying to encourage him. “So, how exactly does it work?”
“We all need oxygen to do our business, right? Go about our lives, do our work.” He looks at us expectantly.
We nod emphatically, overdoing it a bit. “Yeah, yeah! Need oxygen to work, right!”
“Yeah,” he says, “So, if you don’t get enough, you get tired, rundown. Then you come here, get that extra oxygen you need, you’re all energized again.”
I ask how much oxygen is in the machine. He raises one finger. I’ve hit the jackpot.
“Twenty-four percent!” he says. “Double the amount in the air.”
Ross and I look at each other. Neither of us likes making a scene. In the two years since we started our podcast investigating unlikely claims, we’ve been cupped, accupunctured, exorcised, and baptized. We’ve managed not to get anyone mad at us (except the Raëlians), even if we frustrated all of them with our incessant questions. But it is always hard when they hit us with a bold, inconsistent claim.
“Doesn’t the regular air have twenty-one percent oxygen?” I ask, trying to sound unsure. I’m sure.
“Yeah,” Gavin agrees, “So you’re already breathing that in because of the extra space in your nostrils, around the tubes. If you cut off the outside air, you wouldn’t get double.” He pinches his nostrils to make sure I get it. “But, together, it’s double.”
“Oh, uh huh,” says Ross, “So... should we feel something?”
“Oh yeah, you will soon,” Gavin confirms, smiling and grabbing a massage tool to relax us.
“I’m sorry. Just real quick,” I jump in. “If the oxygen in the regular air is 21 percent, then if this machine were just full of air, and I were breathing that in, along with the outside air, I would still be breathing in 21 percent oxygen, but it wouldn’t double... Right?”
Gavin blinks at me. “I’m no scientist,” he says, “But that’s how it works.” He pinches his nose again to make sure I understand. I really do.
It’s now been about fifteen minutes of breathing in the double-oxygen (or whatever it is), and neither of us is feeling a thing. We had both expected some kind of head rush, or the feeling of being in the woods, or some notable physiological effect, but neither of us is feeling a thing. In fact, I’m starting to feel a little sick of the artificial peppermint smell coupled with leftover piña colada clogging the pipes. Gavin lets us stay an extra twenty minutes. After all, he explains, if the place is empty, it’s harder to draw in more business. We’re keeping the place alive, sitting at our machines, our noses plugged in like we’re receiving a lifesaving medical treatment. Who wouldn’t want to join us?
Before we leave, Gavin tells Ross he looks like David Duchovny and says I look like Meg Ryan, fifteen years ago.
“Have you seen You’ve Got Mail?” he asks with a flirty smile. Then he tries to sell me a $200 electronic massage kit that looks like a knockoff iPod.
When Ross’s wife and son return to pick us up, they are snickering and pointing at Ross from out the door. Andrew has never seen his dad hooked up to an oxygen machine before. But they’ve come to expect this sort of thing from both of us. We thank Gavin and leave, giving him just $40 for our almost sixty minutes of combined service. He’s disappointed that we aren’t buying the knockoff iPod, but he offers us a special deal if we come back. We pretend this is very exciting.
Outside, we tell Cara and Andrew how ineffective the whole thing seemed and explain Gavin’s bizarre notion about how oxygen “doubling” works.
“But hey,” I offer, “you never know. Maybe there will be some improvement we just couldn’t perceive yet.”
“Maybe,” Cara says.
The next day, I get a headache.
Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters
By Matt Kaplan. Scribners, New York, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4516-6798-1. 244 pp. Hardcover, $26.00
The intent of Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is to provide scientific explanations for various monsters found in historical legend and literature up through the monsters of today as seen, mostly, in film. Had Kaplan succeeded in this task, he would have produced an exciting and interesting book. Instead, the book is filled with over-explanations, just-so stories, and college-level film criticism, all leavened by one howling error.
The topics covered are arranged in rough chronological order. Thus, the first half of the book deals with monsters from ancient myths and legends such as the Nemean lion, chimeras, the Minotaur, Medusa, Charybdis, and the like. But modern monsters are tossed in too—King Kong and the giant squid (the latter doesn’t really belong since it does exist).
The explanations for ancient beasts are often fairly reasonable. For example, monsters that are giant versions of already scary animals are scary because, well, a giant version of something already scary (e.g., a lion) is even scarier. Snakelike monsters are scary because snakes are scary in the first place. Why do snakes, to this day, generate fear? Kaplan argues, convincingly, that the fear of snakes is part of human’s evolutionary heritage. They posed real danger as proto-humans evolved. So there is an advantage to avoiding snakes even if one has not had a direct scary experience with them.
There is, however, a bit of a problem with this explanation of the commonality of snakes as ancient monsters. Spiders, like snakes, continue to generate fear. Spiders, like snakes, posed a hazard to humans while we were evolving. However, spiders, unlike snakes, did not serve as the basis for legends of any ancient monsters, as far as I know.
Kaplan does occasionally go overboard by trying to come up with a specific explanation for every little variation in a myth. For example, on pages 54 and 55 there is a discussion of the possible factual basis of the “cruel bellowing” of the Minotaur. There is much discussion of caves and other geologic phenomena. But isn’t it just simpler to explain the details of this, and other, myths as devices to make them scarier? Or, as Amazon reviewer sonabeta pointed out in a November 20, 2012, review, “People sometimes just make things up.”
Similarly, on page 102 the discussion turns to dragons. The question is why dragon myths are not consistent across time and place—some with wings and some without, some breathing fire and some not. Well, dragons aren’t real so why should all stories about them be consistent? Still, Kaplan’s explanation for the fire-breathing part is plausible and I won’t spoil it for the reader by giving it away here.
Chapter 6 on “Hauntings—Demons, Ghosts, Spirits” is long on description of these phenomena and short on explanations. Hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations go unmentioned, although there is a brief discussion of sleep atonia and sleep paralysis. But the full power of hypnogogia—with all of its attendant hallucinations—to convince people that ghosts are real is not made clear at all. This is a serious omission.
The book does contain one major and inexcusable howler in Chapter 7, a chapter dealing with vampires, zombies, and werewolves. Kaplan swallows hook, line, and sinker the long-refuted claim of Wade Davis that zombies are real and that they can be created by witch doctors using the poison tetrodotoxin (TTX), found, among other places, in the skin and internal organs of puffer fish native to Haiti. In accepting Davis’s claims Kaplan ignores the overwhelming scientific literature that shows that 1) the “zombie powder” that Davis claims had TTX in it didn’t and 2) even if it did, TTX in any quantity cannot produce zombies. TTX is a nerve poison that does not get into the brain. In terms of motor control, it affects only the skeletal musculature. Its specific effect is to render victims paralyzed, but it is not the stiff (rigid) paralysis of zombie legend but a flaccid paralysis where muscles lose their tone. In addition, in nonlethal doses TTX causes nausea and vomiting. The idea that just the right dose of TTX could transform a person into a zombie and keep them that way while they were walking around being productive slaves is absurd. And its absurdity has been known since the late 1980s. Sadly, Kaplan obviously didn’t get the memo. For a more detailed discussion with appropriate references, see my article “Zombies and Tetrodotoxin” in the May/June 2008 Skeptical Inquirer (vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 60–62).
The last few chapters change focus from creatures of ancient myth and legend to more recent creations, especially alien abductions and movie monsters. The discussions here are quite poor, almost sophomoric, especially where movie monsters are concerned. The first topic in Chapter 8, “The Created,” is the golem. Here either through bad writing or ignorance (or maybe both) Kaplan seems to state that there was only one golem, in Prague, and the whole golem legend dates only from 1909. In fact, there is ample evidence that the golem legend is much, much older. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia (Facts on File, 1992) notes that the legend dates from at least the fifteenth century. The Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 6 (Ktav Publishing, 1964, reprint of the 1901–1906 edition) states that “In the Middle Ages arose the belief in the possibility of infusing life into a clay or wooden figure of a human being, which figure was termed a ‘golem’ by writers of the eighteenth century” (p. 37). Sadly, missing from this chapter is any discussion of that most modern of mythical creatures, the chupacabra. The creation of the myth of this creature was ably told by Ben Radford in his 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra.
Chapter 9 is devoted to “Terror Resurrected—Dinosaurs.” Here Kaplan discusses the recreation of our old thunder lizard friends in the movies and the possibility for real recreation through use of dinosaur DNA, which, of course, is the theme of the movie Jurassic Park. The discussions of both the film and dinosaur DNA leave much to be desired. Kaplan’s critique of the problems with using DNA to recreate a dinosaur does not come close to that of Desalle and Lindley in their 1997 book Science of Jurassic Park. Kaplan does nicely discuss the problems of recreating a species that would find itself without its natural ecosystem to live in and would thus be confined to some sort of enclosures. However, even here he stumbles by an embarrassing acceptance of the characterization of chaos theory taken directly from the movie—a characterization that is typical Hollywood fantasy. In the film the character Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) says that chaos theory means that “biological systems are uncontrollable by [their] nature and therefore inherently threatening” (p. 187). Thus, no matter what protective measures are taken, any recreated dinosaurs will break free and terrorize the world. Or at least the local natives. This is Hollywood nonsense. It bears about as much relationship to actual chaos theory as the view of quantum mechanics espoused by New Age proponents does to actual quantum mechanics. In fact, chaos theory deals with systems in which tiny changes in initial conditions can have very large effects on the state of these systems at later times. The theory does not allow the impossible to happen or even predict that the very unlikely will.
The final chapter, “Extraterrestrial Threat—Aliens,” suffers from much the same problem as the section on ghosts: long on description but short on explanation. The chapter starts with a description of the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case. It then states that: “Countless tales of abductions and bizarre sightings followed” (p. 198). Kaplan then asks why aliens are visiting Earth but not being detected by “all the space scanning technology that has been developed during the past decades” (p. 199). His answer? “It is an enigma.” No, it’s not, as even a slight familiarity with the skeptical literature on UFOs and alien abduction would have made clear. The rest of the chapter wanders in sort of a haze through various alien-themed science-fiction movies, including an interesting digression on parasites and how they can change animal behavior. And then it stops. It doesn’t end. It just stops.
Perhaps this review should just stop as well. In summary, the book does contain a few interesting insights into the factual backgrounds of several legendary creatures. But in general it is poorly researched and written. Is it good enough for me to recommend that my university library purchase a copy? No. I make the same recommendation for the readers of this review.
The first in a hopefully fun and informative series of columns, I want to kick-off Reductio ad Absurdum with a look at so-called “magnetic people.” As will be the case for all the columns, never mind that there is no evidence for these gaussy guys and gals, what would the world be like if people really did generate a noticeable or even intense magnetic field?
Strip club patrons would get quite a show, more so than usual, if people really were magnetic.
Amid the dollar bills and drunk-at-noon businessmen, a magnetic stripper, if she spun fast enough around the poll, would melt it. At the very least she would shock herself before shocking the crowd. When a conductor like metal meets a changing magnetic field, the magic of reality induces an electric current in it. Flip-flop this current around enough, and the metal heats up to the point of melting.
If people really were magnetic, they would be terrible navigators. Taking to their smart phones and computers, their screens would blur out and become unusable. Going back to the old methods, a compass wouldn’t help much either. It would be more likely to find you than Earth’s magnetic north.
Like all interesting human qualities, magnetic people would have a range of field strengths. Perhaps there would even be schools and universities dedicated to harnessing or improving your output. In any case, the strength of the field matters quite a bit. It’s the difference between being a glorified refrigerator magnet and being able to free fall down a metal tube without dying.
Magnetic people with the strength of refrigerator magnets would produce a field 100 times stronger than the Earth’s. But if any fortunate “Magnetos” existed, perhaps with MRI-like output, they would have one million times the field strength of Earth. For the refrigerator-strength people, you wouldn’t have to change much. But a public warning would have to go out whenever those Magnetos were about. Entire houses, entire cities, would have to be shielded; all metal objects not tied down turn into deadly projectiles. In fact, a rogue oxygen tank once proved this danger, killing a patient during an MRI scan after rocketing across the room, drawn by the monstrous amount of teslas. (You can see the incident re-created here.) And at this strength, you better avoid your friend’s stack of old floppy disks and unshielded hard drives, as you could shuffle their bits into blurry oblivion.
But it wouldn’t be all bad. Magnetic craftsmen would find that every part of their body has become a convenient tool and nail holder. Salmon fishermen could experience a huge boom. As salmon navigate their way home according to the Earth’s magnetic fields, a giant magnet in the form of a fisherman could disorient or even attract the fish. Magnetic lifeguards could take to the ocean as shark repellants.
Lovers might find it annoying however, as there is no telling when your poles, so to speak, would line up.
If people really were magnetic, it would eliminate the need for elevators, at least as a way down. A strong enough magnet can be dropped into a metal tube, fighting gravity all the way, and descend slowly, impossibly, to the ground. Abandoning elevators for simple metal tubes, magnetic people working in office buildings could simply jump into the tube, allowing their fields to slow their descent. Getting back up is another matter. Like Spiderman and his abnormally “sticky” hands, magnetic people could just walk up the side of a metal edifice. Of course, a lot of modification would be in order, as would leg workouts.
Recreation would change for the magnetic humans. Think of the joy in frolicking around a ferrofluid-filled pool. Silly putty goes from cool to amazing in your hands. But sticking spoons to your nose would hardly be anything to brag about.
If a kind of biological magnetism were the norm, medicine as we know it would change. Metal scalpels would be abandoned for fear of losing grip of them. What was meant to mend would turn into a missile. Pacemakers would lose the beat as induced currents surged through the wires. Metallic implants would shift curiously inside us. And needless to say, an MRI machine could make quite a mess.
Handrails at malls and airports the world over would not only need to be cleaned, but de-magnetized. As millions of magnetics ran their hands across the rails, they too would become attractive. People would lose their car keys and loose change to these invisible pickpockets. However, it would make it easier to pick up change off the street, if you could just collect it all from your feet and ankles.
All of this could be avoided with a little science. Magnetic shields—materials that draw fields into themselves, preventing magnets from interacting beyond the shield—could eliminate many of the potential hazards. The clothing industry would have to incorporate completely foreign materials. Conventional design structures would mold around materials like Permalloy, a metal used in shielding, instead of polyester. Expensive at first, the booming new industry would soon drive down prices so that even the refrigerator magnet-strength people could get in on it. Engineers would continue to find ingenious ways to weave shielding into clothing and accessories. It would be a paradigm shift in textile design—a style revolution to follow a magnetic one.
So many things would have to change—our technology, the tools we use to operate on medical patients, our transportation systems, the way we play sports, the way we move, even the way we kiss—in a world were opposites really do attract.
A world where human magnetism is an anomaly would be very different from one where it is the norm. A singular magnetic man, the only one of his kind, would be a freak, for lack of a better term. Sadly, he would probably meet his end at the sharp point of some scientific scalpel. Of course, before he met his end he would be, effectively, a superhero. He could spend his days re-creating scenes in Star Wars, pulling metal lightsabers his way. He could do the same with Thor’s hammer, if he didn’t kill himself with a flying pot or pan instead.
Instead of finding these amazing feats of electromagnetism, we find slightly more sticky humans whose abilities are defeated by talc powder. Science tells us what to expect, now what do you see?
I became the “skeptic” member of the local Bigfoot group almost by chance. I owe the offer to join to the reality TV show “Finding Bigfoot” (they never actually do). The show, featuring perennial Bigfoot personality Matt Moneymaker, has a skeptic, Ranae Holland. She's a scientist who seems to serve the function on the show of saying “I'm still not convinced,” while scratching her head at weird howls and mysterious smears on glass doors.
Since the advent of reality TV Bigfoot hunting shows, local groups have popped up all over the country. While I have only scant hope a Bigfoot exists, I think like most people I believed the only possible location for Bigfoot was the Pacific Northwest or perhaps a Yeti population in the Himalayas. Bigfoot TV contends that these bipedal ape-like hairy creatures can be found almost anywhere.
The local Bigfoot group I work with was born when a group of local hunters were watching “Finding Bigfoot” on TV at a local bar and one of them said those prophetic words “Well heck, we could do that!”
The only problem was that they needed a Ranae. This is probably one of the most positive aspects of the new generation of Bigfoot shows. The need for a skeptic, to question things and to have someone to prove Bigfoot to, means most of these groups now have a lone voice of skepticism.
The problem for the “Bigfoot Club”—it's not a creative name but it works—was where to find a skeptic. They tried calling local colleges and asking for a biologist that might want to help out. The problem is that biologists are usually doing biology. They are doing real science, and the thought of tromping around the woods looking for a large unknown creature doesn’t often appeal to them, especially when there are still lots of small unknown creatures to be found. Scientists like to do science. They have paid jobs, and this was not only an unpaid job, it didn't even come with a TV contract.
I am known in our small community as the skeptic. Small towns are like families. You aren't just known by your name, you are also known by some peculiarity. My husband is “that guy who used to work at the nuke plant.” My daughter who graduated from MIT is “that really smart girl.” I am that “nice lady but she doesn't believe much of anything!”
I received a phone call from one of the Bigfoot club members asking if I believed that Bigfoot was walking around in the woods where we lived. I was slightly surprised when my reply of “Of course not!” made him so happy. I was then asked to be the skeptic of the group.
I pointed out I had no training in biology and probably knew less about what lived in the acres of forest behind my house then the local Cub Scouts. I was assured “We don't have anyone else, you'll have to do.”
I felt a bit more reassured about joining when I read an interview with Holland on the Shewired online site. She spoke about her trepidation about joining “Finding Bigfoot”:
Initially, I was very resistant to doing this because, I am a young scientist that studies aquatics and fisheries, and the last thing I wanted to do was be affiliated with belief in Bigfoot. So it actually took me a while to come around.
If a scientist that studies aquatics and fisheries feels she can look for a large unproven land mammal, so can I. The point is not do you know anything about Bigfoot biology. Despite the tone of the show, no one knows anything about Bigfoot biology. I think the Bigfoot community is pretty shaky even about Bigfoot behavior in general since there is such a lack of video, photographs, or decent DNA results of any hair, skin, or scat samples.
I however, am not a TV skeptic. I don't just go out on a hike looking for Bigfoot and say “Well, I'm still not convinced.” Instead, I demand a two way exchange of information. They try to convince me that every little thing is proof; I try to convince them that an oddly broken tree limb up high is most definitely not proof Bigfoot was scratching his back and accidentally broke it off. It's far more give and take, and I consider my job to be one of education. I was a teacher for years, and I find teaching critical thinking skills the most important part of my job as a skeptic. Saying “I'm not convinced” over and over isn't enough.
I have spent much time educating the group on just constitutes proof. What do we need to find to actually prove there is a Bigfoot in the woods. The group has had personal experiences, vague sightings of furry creatures, unknown howling calls, sounds of something running in the woods, but nothing to be seen. This has convinced many of the members Bigfoot is real. That's fine, but I have helped educate them about what is scientific proof. The group at first was fond of bringing up “If this were a court case, all this testimony would be proof there is a creature out there!” Now the group is “We need good clean DNA, and better photographs and video.” We'd like a dead body of course!
Just a side note about the “kill or capture” Bigfoot controversy. I was very pro shoot and kill, until I found out many teens think it's hilarious to fake Bigfoot calls and leave fake prints. Costumes are also surprisingly popular with an age group too young to truly understand that people with guns would love to bag a Bigfoot. So now the group policy is not to shoot unless we are 100% sure it's a Bigfoot. Hunting season brings enough human accidental deaths; we would hate to be the cause of some dumb teenager in a Gillie camouflage suit. This is just one of the topics as a skeptic I've discussed with the group. As much as we'd love to have one for “scientific proof,” we'd hate to shoot a hoaxer. Well, a few were for shooting hoaxers, but I managed to talk them around.
So what does a Bigfoot skeptic do? My duties include attending our Skype meetings and online chats. We also meet in person every month or so, usually at that same bar where the club was founded.
During meetings we brainstorm ideas, and I am usually asked to give a small skeptic presentation. One recent lesson was how to collect a sample for DNA analysis. I did not know the best method for this until fellow skeptic Sid Rodrigues from the UK shared his knowledge with me. I brought along baggies, cheap gloves, and also face masks in case anyone had a cold. The point was that the current collection method of just putting it in your pocket greatly increased the chance of contamination. As a skeptic, you have to ask your fellow skeptics for help when you don't know the answer. A good Bigfoot skeptic says “I don't know, I'll find out” a lot.
A good Bigfoot skeptic team member is also a good sport. This fall the group thought up a wonderful plan. Bigfoot snow scanning was born! The thought was that since there are snow prints of the Yeti online (or prints of something at least), and considering we live in New Hampshire, where there is snow cover on the ground for most of the winter, why not look for Bigfoot prints in the snow? I had to agree this was an excellent suggestion. Why do other Bigfoot groups only look and find prints in mud and soft dirt? A Bigfoot would leave tracks all over the snow cover in winter! These tracks would stay for months.
I also played my role as skeptic. I pointed out that saying “Well, Yeti and Bigfoot are related, so they must also leave footprints in the snow!” is like saying “Well unicorns and Pegasus are related.” I often have to remind them we're talking about something not proven, and in this case, two things not proven. I get some eye rolling, but I try to use humor and not lecture. Just a simple reminder every now and again.
The group divided up local areas to be covered by a group member every day. No excuses. We all agreed to cover assigned areas of others if there were a need such as illness or a vacation. There were also weekly trips to our local large state park for viewing on more remote trails. My area was simply my back yard, several acres where one of the Bigfoot Club members saw something “furry and large out of the corner of my eye.” It was a simple task for me to go upstairs, pull out my binoculars and look for new tracks. I never missed a day, except for an illness, and then my yard was covered by another member.
The results were rather disappointing. I was the only member of the team that found “unknown” tracks. This was during one of the trips to our local state park. I photographed odd prints, not on a trail but going to a small stream. These were large, not bear, but also not human. We're still investigating these tracks, I called in other team members to photograph and measure the snow prints.
While this did not prove the existence of Bigfoot, it did prove that the skeptic of the group was “on board.” I found my suggestions and skeptical comments treated with more respect after I proved my willingness to be a team player. It has become a joke that the one that will prove Bigfoot will be “the one that doesn't believe!”
I give the group homework, for instance they are studying why there are no really good clear photographs or videos of Bigfoot. The odd thing about the Bigfoot community, and this overlaps with paranormal things such as UFOs and ghosts, is that a very clear photograph of video is almost always considered a hoax. It is the fuzzy unclear videos and photographs that gain the most acceptance. It's as if what a Bigfoot video or photograph would truly look like, meaning in focus, is often too considered a person in a costume or someone trying to make money.
Bigfoot Club is in the process of once again putting out trail cameras. I helped with choosing placement sites. I asked a real biologist friend for suggestions. His response was to think of where real animals would travel. Putting the cameras by quiet spots with fresh water was one suggestion I passed on to the group. We have limited cameras so it's best to make the most use out of them. We debated, as a group, the best height for the cameras. Last year’s trail camera photographs were of a lot of deer, rabbits, opossums, and skunks. It's rather fun to talk about the height of what I consider an imaginary creature.
I recently challenged the group by posing this question: “Just when do you decide there is no Bigfoot living in our area and stop looking?” This was something they had not considered. Those with personal experience, and as a skeptic I find personal experience is bitch to overcome, believe they will find proof. It isn't a matter of quitting, it was a matter of simply finding proof for the rest of the world. They don't need to find any more proof; they know.
The others were more practical, they still had many ideas they wanted to try. The latest, based on my challenge as to why there were not Bigfoot photographs from the trail cams last year, is to try photographing Bigfoot with a camera “without a battery.” Perhaps, Bigfoot can sense batteries.
I am of course getting all the skeptic help I can from those with expertise in batteries and can animals “sense” them. Meanwhile I am also participating in the great Bigfoot hunt with old fashioned cameras without batteries. We will be in the woods, no cell phones, no hearing aids (sorry Tim), no one with a pacemaker (sorry Jim), and no GPS (we might get lost, so Bigfoot hunting is indeed dangerous). It's a creative plan, and they understand they will have to listen to my lecture on why animals can't sense batteries, as soon as my skeptic friends come through with good expert advice I can then relate.
However, I have to admit the truth about why I am a Bigfoot skeptic. It's actually a lot of fun. I'm going to enjoy going about the woods with a vintage Brownie camera that I have to wind by hand to advance the film. I plan to take photographs no matter what we see. If nothing else, it's lovely here in the spring. It's also fun to be part of a team, and to be given respect when I speak. I'm very clear my job is not for them to convince me, my job is to convince them that critical thinking skills should always be applied. Things they learn, about being careful what website you get information from, using common sense, looking for alternative and more simple explanations, can be helpful not just when hunting Bigfoot but in everyday life.
They are a wonderful group, very tolerant to not only the only skeptic member but also the only female member. We both learn a lot from each other, and while I may never say “I believe in Bigfoot,” I am learning how to better reach and interact with any group of believers in something that is probably not true. That said, if one of the group collects the evidence that proves the reality of Bigfoot, carefully using his glove and plastic bag of course, besides being very surprised I will also be very proud.
Indonesia has a population of over 248,000,000 people composing about 300 ethnic groups living on 17,508 islands speaking 350 different languages. So it is no surprise if Indonesians believe numerous different things.
Every day in Indonesia you will hear or see psychics, paranormalists, parapsychologists, and pseudoscientists spreading, scaring, and scamming the nation with irrational beliefs and pseudoscience through the media. You will be able to see them planting thoughts into peoples’ heads so that they can offer solutions and take people's money.
There are countless Indonesian paranormal TV shows and they all have very good ratings. For example, at midnight every night there is a show where they have a participant sit and wait alone in the dark with an infrared camera in an empty house believed by the locals to be haunted. You will often see strange phenomena such as moving objects, ghostly figures, and also unexplainable sounds or noises. If the participant can just sit there for four hours without fainting, falling asleep, or giving up, the participant is rewarded with Rp. 1,500,000 (or about $130). The problem is, of course, that those haunted houses are gimmicked. I usually watch the show with my friend, a successful magic shop owner, and he is able to tell what type of magic gimmicks or technologies they were using to create a haunted house illusion.
One night I was watching a live talk show and the guests were a parapsychologist, a ghost photographer, and a paranormalist. Surprisingly, they had a little debate because they disagreed with each other's explanations about the paranormal and how it works. That event put a little smile on my face. It proved that their work is not as scientific as they claim it to be.
I told many people to send me any reports of any unexplained, paranormal, or occult events. I have received dozens of interesting reports. Some of them were from victims of a rapist paranormal being, known as "Kolor Ijo"(Kolor Ijo means Green Underwear). According to victims, Kolor Ijo looked just like an adult man wearing just green underwear. They said Kolor Ijo raped them while they were asleep. Victims reported that they woke up in the middle of the night then realized there was a weird looking man silently raping them and they could not move a single muscle or scream for help. Of course, it could have been a real rapist, but all the reports sounded too familiar to me. It reminded me of the famous "alien abductions" in America or the "incubus" in Europe. If "sleep paralysis" was the real suspect in this case, then it is obviously harmful to plant the thought that a paranormal being called Kolor Ijo actually exists.
When it comes to irrational beliefs, even the bad guys fall into it. Some thieves believe that if they enter a house without wearing a single piece of clothing they will be invisible. That is one thing that I wish all thieves believed. And if you have never seen a naked thief before, feel free to visit Indonesia. I have seen numbers of naked thieves caught in action. Believe me, you would rather see a ghost than a naked stranger walking around your house.
One of Indonesians’ favorite food is noodles. But there is a problem with some of the noodles. Some noodle-makers were caught putting dirty used underwear in the soup. They believe that with dirty underwear and a little bit of prayer, they could make the soup taste better and could attract more customers. Those are examples of how disgusting irrational beliefs can be in Indonesia.
Talking about bad guys, there is a popular street hustle where the hustler confidently robs a victim without the victim realizing that they were being robbed. It is known here as "Gendam." Most people believe the hustlers use either black magic or hypnosis. I have seen the mentalist Derren Brown do the same thing in one of his specials, and I am confident in saying that it is neither black magic nor hypnosis. It is pure misdirection.
Now, it is time for me to introduce to you a wonderful land called "Tana Toraja." Tana Toraja is a regency of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Since 1984, Tana Toraja has been named as the second most popular tourist destination after Bali by the Ministry of Tourism, Indonesia. Since then, hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors have visited this regency. In addition, numerous Western anthropologists have come to Tana Toraja to study the indigenous culture and people of Toraja. I have never been to Tana Toraja, but there is something about that place that bothers me. Specifically, their unique funeral rituals. In Toraja society, the funeral ritual is a very elaborate and expensive event. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive the funeral. The ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased's family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. Torajans believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward the land of souls. The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to the land of souls. There are three methods of burial: the coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. A wood-carved effigy, called “Tau Tau,” is usually placed in the cave looking out over the land. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. In the ritual called “Ma'Nene,” the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed, and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village. As you may have guessed, the last burial method is what bothers me. I have met some people that were born and raised in Tana Toraja and asked them about the Ma'Nene ritual, because I have never witnessed the ritual myself and was very curious. They said, the walking corpse is true and Torajans have been doing it for hundreds of years—some even say thousands of years. But I'm still skeptical. Maybe it is time for me to visit that place myself, but I need to make sure that it is not just a myth or folklore before I decide to go for it.
I believe education, or at least a little critical thinking, is a good way to avoid irrational beliefs and scams. It is probably one of many things professional skeptics would say to anybody. But all the information available out there is written and spoken in English. Since not all Indonesians speak or understand English, that is one possible reason why they never get the education they need about skepticism or critical thinking. Irrational belief and pseudoscience can be physically, mentally, and financially harmful. That is why I created a movement, which I call “Indonesian Scientific Skeptics.” The people inside the movement can simply be called "Indo-Skeptics." The main goal is to prepare future generations to defend themselves from nonsense. I have a lot of plans ahead, and one of them is to provide understandable scientific sources for Indonesians, where they could learn more about science and avoid pseudoscience. But first of all, I need their attention. Because they are probably more skeptical about the movement, since the term “skeptic” sounds negative to some people, and pseudoscientists looked more convincing because most of them wear lab coats and sell “too good to be true” products or services. The movement I started does not have many supporters yet, but I have a good feeling that it will be a breakthrough someday. One thing I have been doing for a while to get people's attention, which is turning superstitions and belief into art and entertainment by mixing magic, hypnosis, and showmanship—basically, what skeptics like James Randi or Derren Brown usually do. I am writing a book now about the importance of critical thinking and skepticism for Indonesians and I also give lectures to local magicians about the same topic and the belief issues that we are facing in this country. I always get positive feedback and support from the listeners.
There is a lot more I would love to share with you, which I will do in other articles sometime in the future. Next time I will include witchcraft, ghosts, popular Indonesian myths, alternative medicines and therapies, and a lot more. What you have just read is just a warm up and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed sharing it with you!
Among my many interests as a boy was cryptography—the study of codes, ciphers, and other secret writings. I sent and received nighttime Morse code messages by flashlight between neighbors’ houses and mine, made and solved cryptograms, used my forensic chemistry lab to make various invisible inks and developers, and even compiled a treatise on the subject (Nickell n.d.). I was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and later by Helen Fouché Gaines’s textbook Cryptanalysis (1956), among other writings.
When I grew up, I renewed my interest in secret messages through investigating a number of historical mysteries as well as during ten years of research for my magnum opus, Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective (1990). Thomas Parrish was once kind enough to pen an inscription in a copy of his excellent book, The American Codebreakers (1986), “To Joe Nickell—a cracker of all ciphers.” He gives me too much credit, but here, anyway, are abstracts of some of my interesting cases, from the trivial to the profound.Secret Posts
One little secret message I came across in an antique store had already been revealed. It was on a postcard, penned in tiny script in the little box reserved for the postage stamp. The stamp had been carefully removed, obviously by the recipient, exposing the hidden writing. I was so taken by the find that I searched the remaining large collection of postcards in the store and found a few others—all clearly from the same sender.
The hidden-under-the-stamp messages were simply miniscule love notes. One consisted of rows of little X’s (a popular shorthand for kisses), while another asked, “Do you you still love this bad boy?” The cards, postmarked between 1911 and 1913 were addressed to a young lady at a Virginia girls’ school (Nickell 1990, 177). Charming!
Another postcard, found on a different occasion, bore a curious-looking script. However, it proved to be an innocuous message, easily read by noting the picture side of the card. It depicted a lady before a mirror and was accompanied by the printed couplet, “This message is for you my dear—/Your looking glass will make it clear” (Nickell 1990, 177). (For a discussion of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous mirror handwriting, see my “Deciphering Da Vinci’s Real Codes,” Nickell 2007).A ‘Ju-Ju’ Message
Sometimes a message is hidden in plain sight. In researching the case of a devil-baby mummy that I encountered in a Toronto curio shop and that later proved bogus, I came across a published photo of a pair of similar creatures, their arms folded in the repose of death. A sign affixed to the creatures’ coffin proclaimed: “These shrunken mummified figures were found in a crude tomblike cave on the island of Haiti in 1740 by a party of French marines. They are supposed to be the remains of a lost tribe of ‘Ju-Ju’ or Devil Men—who, after death, followed a custom of shrinking & mummifying the dead. Are they real? We don’t know, but . . . X-Rays showed skin, horn, & hooves human!” Astonishingly, however, there was no mention of skeletons, suggesting that—like the Toronto devil-baby mummy—the figures were fabricated (Nickell 2011, 148–149).
Painted beneath the sign were these mumbo-jumbo words:
YENOH M’I DLOC!
My cryptanalytical interests were piqued, and I soon divined the meaning. Can you decipher it yourself before reading further?
I discovered that the text was the simplest form of a transposition cipher, one in which the actual letters of the secret message are rearranged in some fashion. In this instance, it is only necessary to read each word backward in turn to reveal a witty commentary on the creatures’ nakedness: “Honey I’m Cold!” Exclamation point indeed.Encoded Book Figure 1. The cryptic text in an old book soon yielded up its secrets.
In 1985 my old friend, Canadian writer and bibliophile George Fetherling, sent me copies of some pages from a small 1948 book titled SENATOR, the text of which was printed in a strange sort of code or cipher (Figure 1). George wanted to know what this intriguing work was all about—and so did I!
I set to work, immersing myself in the mysterious text. Soon, I recognized that at least some of the apparent words were indeed words, only they had been abbreviated—mostly by removing the vowels. (Thus whr=“where,” stn=“station,” etc.). Also, some consonants were dropped, particularly double ones (so that rgt=“right” and al=“all”). In addition, some common words were replaced by symbols (such as “£” for “Lodge” and @ for “and” [not for “at,” which was itself “a,” although “a” could also represent “a” itself.) Finally, some of the abbreviations were just acronyms (hence, MA=“Master at Arms”). In short, the text is a very simple form of code. (A code consists of substitutes not just for letters, as in a simple cipher, but for groups of letters, words, or even entire phrases or concepts.)
In beginning to decode the text, and reading phrases and whole clauses (“My station is at the right and front of the Cc [Chancelor?]),” I saw that it concerned a lodge, various officers, and elements of ritual and mystery. I suspected it was the product of some secret order such as the Freemasons, soon realizing that “KOP” in the text clearly referred to a similar fraternal and benevolent society, the Knights of Pythias. This was founded in 1864 in Washington, DC. (“Knights” 1960; Kennedy 1904). Various terms in the text are consistent with Pythian use. (Although the book lacked publishing information, and a standard bibliographic search was fruitless, for this publication CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga was later able to use online sources to confirm the KOP origin.)
The book’s title page bears a brief message of a different type. It reads:
NOITINOMDA: Sliated laiceps
rof koob eulb tlusnoc ot
dehsinomda si hturt retfa
rekees dna tneduts esolc
Can you decipher it? Quickly cover the following explanation and try your hand.
You should have little trouble, since you have already been introduced to simple transposition ciphers like this. However, instead of reading each word backward in turn, you begin with the word in all capitals (which is, of course, “admonition”), then go to the end and read the whole sentence backward. Case closed.The Cryptograms
So far, we have looked at codes and transposition ciphers. However, the majority of the secret messages I have come across in my work as a historical investigator are what are known as simple substitution ciphers. Popularly mislabeled “codes,” these are created by replacing the letters of the original text, which is known as the “plaintext,” with substitutes—such as other letters, symbols, or the like—resulting in what is termed the “ciphertext.”
I have encountered—and deciphered—many such ciphertexts, written on postcards and greeting cards, in old sentiment albums, and elsewhere (Nickell 1990, 176–77). Solving a simple substitution cipher is usually pretty straightforward. (See Nickell 1990, 177; Gaines 1956, 69–87; also, the previously mentioned Poe and Conan Doyle stories describe the rudiments of decipherment.)
Here is one message from an old autograph album:
L5CY 1992 P42 9476h M3ddl2 64w9 B457b49 C4 K2965cky
If you are an experienced cryptanalyst you might want to stop here and give your skills a try.
As it happened, however, the message was accompanied by a partial “key”:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 a e i o u t r s n
In brief, numbers are substituted for certain frequently used letters (vowels, and four of the most–used consonants), while the remaining letters are unchanged. Now you will have no trouble deciphering the message.
If you solved this without the key, you probably noted that the last word was offset, and so it might be the name of a state (on the assumption that such a text in an autograph album might represent a name and address). That word, omitting the numbers, was “K——cky,” and that could only be one state. Similarly “M-ddl-” looks like the word Middle, so the cryptanalyst could begin to construct a key without having been provided one. This message reads: “Lucy Anne Poe, North Middle Town, Bourbon Co., Kentucky.”
Most such texts are similarly mundane, although they are still fun to solve and help one sharpen his or her cryptanalytical skills. However, some are of a more serious nature. Sometimes a code or cipher even promises to lead to a fabulous treasure, as in the next case.Oak Island’s ‘Cipher Stone’
What is considered by some to be among “the great mysteries of the world” (Crooker 1978, 7), derives from a mysterious shaft on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. It was allegedly discovered in 1795 when three young men came upon a shallow depression over which, hanging from a tree limb, was an old tackle block. The trio believed some treasure lay below but they were never able to recover it. Neither has anyone since, although many have tried, only to be thwarted by water flooding the “Money Pit” (as it came to be known) by means of “pirate tunnels” and other problems. Still, zealots are convinced there is a treasure to be claimed, possibly the French crown jewel or Shakespeare’s manuscripts, even perhaps the legendary Holy Grail (Nickell 2001).
Reportedly, sometime in the early nineteenth century (different dates are given), a treasure-hunting consortium dug up a flat stone that bore a cryptic message. This “cipher stone” takes its place with other such reports—of “strange markings” carved on the old tree (Finnan 1997, 28) and even of “a tier of smooth stones . . . with figures and letters cut on them” (quoted in Crooker 1978, 24). No photo exists of any of these, and the cipher stone—assuming it actually existed—has been missing since about 1919. However, its text has allegedly been preserved, although in various forms and differing decipherments. Zoologist-turned-epigrapher Barry Fell thought the inscription was ancient Coptic, its message urging people to remember God lest they perish (Finnan 1997, 148–49).Figure 2. A cipher, allegedly inscribed on a stone (see inset, bottom center), is only one of many bogus elements of the Oak Island treasure tale. (Illustration by Joe Nickell)
In fact, the cipher text as we now have it has been correctly deciphered—and redeciphered and verified. It is written in a simple-substitution cipher (reproduced in Crooker 1993, 23). I have reconstructed what the cipher stone might have looked like, providing my drawing as an inset to my Oak Island “treasure map” (Figure 2), based on several sources and my own visit to the island in 1999. My independent decipherment, which tallies with those of several modern investigators (Crooker 1993, 19–24), reads, “FORTY FEET BELOW TWO MILLION POUNDS ARE BURIED.” Although he is convinced there was an original inscribed stone, “mentioned in all the early accounts of the Onslow Company’s expedition,” William S. Crooker states (1993, 24): “Obviously the inscription as we know it today is a hoax—a modern invention deliberately made simple to lure potential investors. It is highly unlikely that the originators of the Money Pit left a coded message giving the amount and depth of buried treasure.”
I agree. My own longtime investigation of the Oak Island mystery, however, indicated that the “Money Pit” and “pirate tunnels” were simply natural formations. Moreover, much of the Oak Island saga—especially certain reported actions and alleged discoveries—tally with the “Secret Vault” allegory of Freemasonry. Indeed, the search for the Oak Island treasure “vault” has been carried out largely by prominent Nova Scotia Freemasons, and it appears that the whole affair is an insiders’ one linked to high-level Masonic rituals (Nickell 2001, 219–34).
The foregoing by no means exhaust my examples. The interested reader might wish to consider the mysterious inscription of the Yarmouth Stone in Nova Scotia, which I was permitted to examine in 1999 (Nickell 2001, 190–193), or the infamously unsolved Beale ciphers that tell of a treasure lost since 1817 (Nickell with Fischer 1992, 53–67), among others. More cases no doubt await.References
Crooker, William S. 1978. The Oak Island Quest. Hantsport, N.S.: Lancelet.
———. 1993. Oak Island Gold. Halifax, N.S.: Nimbus.
Finnan, Mark. 1997. Oak Island Secrets, rev. ed. Halifax, N.S.: Formac.
Gaines, Helen Fouché. 1956. Cryptanalysis: A Study of Ciphers and Their Solution. New York: Dover.
Kennedy, William D. 1904. Pythian History. Chicago: Pythian Hist. Publ. Co.
Knights of Pythias. 1960. Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 18:804.
Masonic Heirloom Edition Holy Bible. 1964. Wichita, Kansas: Heirloom Bible Publishers.
Nickell, Joe. 1990. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
———. 2007. Deciphering Da Vinci’s real codes. Skeptical Inquirer 31(3) (May/June): 23–25.
———. N.d. Secret Messages. Unpublished typescript; see “Cryptographer,” online at www.joenickell.com/Cryptographer/cryptographer1.html.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1992. Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
Parrish, Thomas. 1986. The American Codebreakers: The U.S. Role in Ultra. Paperback ed. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1991.
When paranormal investigators give up on sciencey stuff, what's the alternative? The spiritual. I take you on a tour of a recent paranormal convention.
“Phenomenology 105” is an annual conference on the paranormal that took place this year, March 22-24, in Gettysburg, PA. Hosted by North Eastern Paranormal Investigations (NEPI), about 500 people attended the zombie-themed event that featured speakers, paranormal celebrities, panel discussions, ghost hunts, and zombie prom.
What makes this type of event similar to skeptical, science, and secular-themed conferences is the sense of enjoyment in sharing a common interest, the free use of jargon particular to the specialty subject area, and interaction with people that everyone just knows. They also had a funny and personable emcee by way of Jeff Belanger. Participants were excited and enthusiastic.
The differences from science/skepticism conferences, however, are considerable. You've never been to one of these conferences? Well, let me show you around.Demographics of a Para-Con
There are no professors. There are no suits. Instead, there are LOTS of black tee-shirts.
Black tee-shirts are the stereotypical uniform of paranormal investigators. They really do wear them, emblazoned with their group's name and acronym. Entire families wear the same tee-shirt design. Yes, families. The age range at this event was wide. The youngest child was around nine and the oldest person likely over seventy. The median age was, if I had to guess, about forty. Ethnicity was not as diverse.
At least half the attendees were women. However, this ratio did not hold for the speakers—I counted only four women among the forty or so presenters. There was no hint of or mention of sexism and no conduct policy. Everyone was courteous and friendly. But, I was not present later at the bar when alcohol entered the social mix.Phenomenology vendor area. Jeff Belanger is horrified to see a skeptic enter. (Photo: Sharon Hill)
The vendor area featured merchandise ranging from ghost hunting implements to skull motif jewelry. This was also a meet-and-greet location to purchase autographs and pictures from authors and horror actors in attendance. The psychic reader didn't seem very busy. I asked about the parascope device that detects changes in static electricity by changing colors (pretty!). The seller demonstrated the response by placing his cell phone next to it. Also featured on this table were palm-sized geophones that lit up when nearby vibrations were detected. Great for lining them along a hallway to detect footsteps, he said. And, besides, they glowed in the dark. Cool. $90 a piece.
With the many gadgets on display, I noticed the non-gadgets even more. Vendors were selling every kind of Saintly medal, rosary, chakra, and lucky charm you could imagine. There is a trend AWAY from the sciencey-sounding activities in exchange for a greater reliance on the spiritual. Another speaker noted this exact transformation in herself which I describe a bit later.
I suspect the spiritual topics may have gained popularity beginning with the TV show Paranormal State which aired from 2006-2011 featuring college kids investigating hauntings often associated with evil forces or demons. The leader, Ryan Buell, was a devout Catholic, interpreted the anecdotes and observations as demonic in many instances, even believing he had his own demon in pursuit. He consulted with demonologists. Now, several groups consider the demonic in their investigation scenarios. The use of protective medallions, religious symbols, and holy water have become more common tools. This religious orientation is also fueled by the success of the TV show Haunted Collector featuring John Zaffis, nephew of the Ed and Lorraine Warren, America's most infamous demonologists.An Array of Speakers
The Zaffis family was the main event on the first night of the conference. The premise of the show is the family investigates items that are supposedly giving people psychic trouble. The blooper reel they showed was a huge hit with the loud, obvious fans sitting next to me. This was my first indication that this is very much a fan con. The content is often light, mostly consisting of a Q&A session with the para-celebs. While sometimes entertaining, I admit I do not like these Q&A sessions because of the dull questions repeatedly asked by the audience: What was the scariest thing that happened to you? What was your favorite place to investigate? I don't watch the shows much so that doesn't interest me. Many of these people are entertainers and they make their fans happy.
Later, I got a chance to ask John Zaffis, an admitted “fan of all religions” how he reconciles all these different belief systems in terms of the clients' paranormal experience? What role does religion play? His answer was brilliant and enlightening: People must use the tools they have, including religion, to deal with their own situation. He can help them but they must do something on their own to feel protected. It did not matter what symbol they used—a rosary, a cross, a rabbit's foot—as long as it worked for them and they believed, that's what does it. He also noted in his talk that the sponsors, network and lawyers do not like when he does religious rituals. This is a touchy area. When I returned from the conference I checked in with some contacts who follow ghost hunting trends who assured me the shift from science to spiritual is a definite thing. Science has failed to give them the solutions (that they wanted) and so, they moved to a more “flexible” framework—whether New Age beliefs or traditional religion.
Thus ended the first evening. These people were genuinely nice and fun to listen to with one caveat…I had to suspend my skepticism and rational thought and just listen.
Friday was all day lectures. The first speaker, John Brightman, gave a presentation on the Bridgewater Triangle of Massachusetts, mainly the Freetown forest area. The area is perceived to be a hotbed of satanic rituals, hauntings, and UFO/Bigfoot sightings. Brightman correlated the events to the three mental hospitals in the area and an “Indian curse” based on a historic massacre. There were so many stories told (no references, no other evidence given) that it was very difficult to tell what was reliable. During the talk, he told of reported Thunderbird sightings in the Triangle while showing slides of pterosaur-like creatures portrayed during Civil War times. I immediately recognized the pictures as hoax photos related to a past TV show. But Brightman didn't mention that. He talked about the photos in the context that they were genuine! Perhaps he slipped on the descriptions but if he DIDN'T know these photos were faked, it would be impossible for me to take him seriously as an investigator. Later, in the vendor room, I decided not to bring up the mistakes he made but asked him about the “parascope” device he was displaying. He said the flashing colored lights are mainly for “entertainment value.” I think his stories are, too.
Jason Gowin, formerly of the roundly criticized TV show Extreme Paranormal gave a humorous and honest presentation about his experiences as a ghost hunter and reality TV participant. Jason, who is an acquaintance of mine, is a funny, sweet person who sits in the middle of the paranormal belief sphere. He knows things are often faked and that he can be fooled but still wonders about terrifying personal episodes he can't brush off. He freely admits that you will come across many people who want to believe in the paranormal so badly, they will force evidence; many of the people who claim to have experienced activity are not mentally stable. Yet, he understands that people feel isolated when they have such experiences and just want someone to help them. “Comforting people is really where it's at,” he says.
No longer under a non-disclosure agreement, Jason speaks out about his time on Extreme Paranormal. “Paranormal TV is entertainment,” he states. “They don't care about what's real or not or whether it's legitimate. Their job is to make a show people will watch.” Extreme Paranormal went down the toilet when they were directed to perform a blood ritual where one of the hosts cut themselves. Jason insisted this set a horrible example. He was ignored. To this day, he claims, he is vilified for his participation in a ruse he was not allowed to expose. The contract stated they would be fined for impeding production of the show. The show was cancelled.
Getting your own TV show is a running gag at the event as the emcee, Jeff Belanger, freely joked about it. One successful show is Destination Truth with Josh Gates. He also has the show Stranded where normal people are put into abnormal situations. Gates also admits that many things are reenacted, condensed, edited, etc. The audience clearly loves Josh: he is charming, entertaining, and witty along with being quite brave to travel all the insane places he ends up (like Antarctica and Chernobyl).
By the end of Friday, I had talked to a few people but was feeling more and more uncomfortable. The growing sense of unease was because my worldview was very far removed from all the people around me. And there were still two days to go.What's A Skeptic To Do?
Beginning with the Zaffis discussion from the first night, I noticed the word “skeptic” was used frequently. The Haunted Collector TV crew was skeptical, investigation teams would have a skeptic included. The “skeptics” had been converted eventually, as spooky things happened and they perceived “THIS S**T IS REAL.” Interesting. At no time did anyone ask probing questions such as, “If these items are SO powerful and have demonstrable paranormal effects, why can't this be documented by scientists?”
Dave Schrader from Darkness Radio gave a well-done presentation on nightmare creatures. Who doesn't love that topic? Especially when delivered with Dave's booming radio voice. I learned some new creatures from his talk—bloody bones man, the origin of the tooth fairy, and more on the completely concocted “Slender Man.” Dave considers himself a “skeptic” in a sense. He mentioned that those people experiencing night hauntings (for example the “old hag” syndrome or alien abduction scenarios) would be advised to consult a professional regarding sleep disorders. He explained that “shadow people” are possibly related to our problems with light perception in the dark or the weird conditions of a place that make you feel uneasy. Telling the story of the Queen Mary ghosts, he was clear that the story of the little ghost girl, Jackie, arose from what looked like a footprint. It grew from there despite no evidence. But for all the admission of alternative normal explanations, he then promoted the paranormal by factually stating that ghosts like attention, bad hauntings (demons) start slowly, in the tales of black-eyed children people ended up dead, and that you need to protect yourself from the “bad stuff.” Disappointingly, his explanation for the proliferation of Slender Man reports (the character that supposedly heralds death to those who see him) took a leap from what might be characterized as meme propagation (the spreading of an idea through culture) to the hundredth monkey phenomena of group consciousness. Also, he entertains the ideas of tulpas—where creations of our mind become real. Example, Queen Mary's Jackie. Oh dear. I thought we were on the right track for a while. I asked Dave “What do you mean by 'skeptic'?” He said, “A person who questions.” Not quite…
The day went downhill from there, as many of the speakers made mistakes that I could easily pick up. Factual errors, and not little ones either, continued to be common. The scholarship at these events is sorely lacking. References are second or third hand. Or nonexistent. Credentials are created.
Dave Juliano of South Jersey Ghost Research sees his crew as “like doctors” to diagnose a situation. He teaches classes on this. One of Dave's points was about frame of mind—ghosts are drawn to anger, positivity gives you protection.
This point was similar to one Michelle Griffin made later in the day when she described how “tools” and equipment of “scientific” investigation hindered her growth and experience. I took that to mean that she (and others) are over-reliant on perception, which is subjective and unreliable. There is that shift from physical to emotional evidence. They are opening themselves up wide to creating their own story as opposed to an objective description. The audience appeared to hear this as “getting in touch with your spiritual side,” that intuition and feelings were more powerful than anything. The person is the tool.
She described how the paranormal was a stepping stone to a new spiritual outlook for her, what she calls a “Holy Shift” which is the name of an upcoming event she is producing. She admitted that the paranormal was “a gateway drug” that “opens you up to the next thing.” It suggested to me being enveloped in belief. It made no sense to me. [(4/26/2013) Edited to remove parts by request of Michelle Griffin]
Once again, some speakers just did Q&A, which was dull and to me showed a lack of preparation. Perhaps I missed an opportunity to ask some zingers but I didn't wish to reveal my secret skeptic identity. I just listened. Interesting bits were to be found as people chit-chatted waiting for the next person to set up.
During one of these setup times, the speaker asked the audience if anyone had gone on a ghost hunt the previous night and how it went. There was some stirring in the audience. One woman, sitting with a male partner and a teen girl spoke up and said, “We had a problem.” She proceeded to tell how they had visited General Lee's headquarters when the teen girl experienced a choking sensation. Soon after, the man did too, and then the woman, as they all sought to get out of the place. They claimed to have heard a growl and interpreted their experience as encountering a malevolent force. Perhaps the General's spirit didn't want them there (they were Yankees). Or maybe, I thought, it was a growling stomach, anxiety, fear, and mass psychogenic illness. No alternative explanations were proposed. The story was too good. Everyone was aghast. I was too, for a different reason.
At no time did anyone ask probing questions such as, “If these claims are real and these spirits are SO powerful and these items have demonstrable paranormal effects, why can't this be documented by scientists?” It was not about that. It was about belief. One black tee-shirt caught my eye...the “Spirit research” group tee said “Learn, understand, respect, believe.”
By this time, I was tired. I had heard a lot that surprised me. A nice change that I thoroughly enjoyed was the zombie panel discussion led by ParanormalPopCulture.com's Aaron Sagers. The panelists included radio personalities, paranormal investigators, and two zombie actors from The Walking Dead. Everyone knew their pop culture zombies and it was like being back at a monster discussion at Dragon*Con, the huge sci-fi/fantasy convention. The questions were great and the viewpoints insightful until someone in the audience suggested that vaccination is a possible way to turn us into a mindless horde because there are “toxins” in them. What a way to derail the discussion, lady. Sadly, she's the one who has been brainwashed. Belief in demons, astrology, chakras, etc., is more understandable than the idea that vaccinations are an evil government plot.
Finally, the featured speaker on Saturday evening was Travis Walton, author, alleged alien abductee. I knew the general story about Walton's claims but not details of the critique. So, I just listened without prejudging—my goal for the weekend. Walton is a talented storyteller who has made relating the tale of his bizarre experience his life's work. I expect he's done okay through book sales, appearances and film royalties. He tells us he is redoing the book, Fire in the Sky, with additional information discovered and is attempting to get the movie (of the same name) remade more accurately. His story is dramatic, it draws people in. But, when he got to the part describing the technology on board the ship (this was in 1975), the obvious problem was the 1970's idea of technology that was depicted. It resembled the Star Trek or Star Wars flight decks. It was laughable. But, I didn't laugh. My conclusion at the end of his talk was that he likely had a frightening and confusing experience and was dramatically misinterpreting it. Upon later discussions with those who have more closely looked into the case, they told me they believe Walton's story to be a deliberate fabrication. Did the people in this audience buy the story? Maybe. They seem very open to believing anything that sounds interesting.
I'd had all I could take. I was full up on the fantastic and simply could not muster the enthusiasm to attend the fourth and final day. I drove home, turning over all I had heard and seen from the weekend.
There was no orthodoxy there. Everyone can do their own thing, then write their own book or get their own show. I felt this was worthwhile to see this from the inside. It is a worthwhile experience for skeptics to do this in order to understand how important FEELING is in these experiences, rather than THINKING. People are very affected; it's become part of who they are. We are the foolish ones who try to rationalize them out of a belief they did not rationalize themselves into.
There are many ways a science news story can hit the mainstream media and become a viral hit: does it involve an adorable, terrifying, or adorably terrifying new species of animal? Did a politician say something hilariously ignorant about it? And perhaps more importantly, does it involve breasts?
It’s for the latter reason that Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon of Universite de Franche-Comte has been the talk of this week’s news cycle, with headlines like Research Suggests Bras Do No Good, Do Women Need Bras? French Study Says Brassieres Are a ‘False Necessity’, and French Study Suggests Younger Women Should Stop Wearing Bras.
Here’s a quote from the CBS News effort:
Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a sports medicine specialist from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Besancon in Besancon, France, published a study on Wednesday that shows that wearing bras may not prevent women’s breasts from sagging, and may in fact increase it.
With any viral story, my skeptic sense begins tingling almost immediately, but the point at which I began to really get suspicious was when I discussed it with my fellow Skepchick contributors, Mary Brock and Will Robertson, and we noticed that we each had a different idea of how many subjects were involved in this study. Was it 320 as reported here, or 330 as reported at CBS News and elsewhere, or 130 as reported here? This is usually easily solved by getting ahold of the actual published study, but unfortunately none of the articles mentioned what it was called or what journal it was in.
A search of the literature turned up nothing, and there were no press releases from the University that mentioned it. Because everything was in French, we engaged several French-speaking Twitter followers who also combed through the literature for us, but again, they found nothing (thanks to @LeBiochimiste, @ologies, and @Bookmore for the help). This was odd, especially considering that CBS News reported that there was a study and further that it was published on Wednesday.
Mary Brock found what appeared to be the oldest source: an interview Rouillon participated in with a student radio station. So it appears that by “published a study,” CBS News and other outlets actually meant, “spoke on the radio.” A fine distinction, I’m sure you’ll agree.
In the radio interview, Rouillon discusses his ongoing research and reports that his preliminary findings suggest bras don’t help with back pain or breast firmness. One twenty-eight-year old subject is interviewed as well and offers her anecdotal testimony that going without a bra has improved her breathing and posture.
Rouillon’s preliminary research, though, is based on only 330 women in total, none of whom was over the age of thirty-five. Rouillon himself has stated that his findings, when (if ever) they’re published, will have nothing to say about the population of women as a whole. He told Reuters that despite his preliminary findings, “a middle-aged women, overweight, with 2.4 children? I’m not at all sure she’d benefit from abandoning bras.”
Additionally, this research clearly suffers from a lack of proper blinding. The study isn’t even over yet, but one of the subjects is on the radio boasting about how great it is to not wear a bra, indicating that she knows what the study is about. Is it possible that she’s more cognizant of her posture? That she’s reporting less back pain because she believes strongly in the power of going bra-less? That she’s undergoing any other treatments to increase, er, “firmness”?
And what about the fact that this study is reported to have been going on for fifteen years? My first assumption upon reading that was that Rouillon was studying the long-term effects of wearing a bra or going without, but if all subjects have been aged eighteen to thirty-five, then the twenty-eight-year old who was interviewed hasn’t been in the study the entire time, and she states that she’s only been bra-free for two years. How are subjects added to this study, and for how long have they been tracked? Without an actual published study to check, it’s impossible to say. We only have Rouillon’s opinion of his own research, which could be based almost entirely on self-reported data.
Rouillon says researchers used calipers and rulers to measure “lift,” but for how long? And did they take into account the woman’s fluctuating weight, breast size, and level of activity? And considering that Rouillon is mentioned as an expert in sports medicine, did they study any women who go for jogs without a sports bra? Because, really, ouch.
Again, without a paper to look at, we don’t know. We only have the opinion of Rouillon and the intercontinental game of telephone that media outlets like CBS News play, resulting in misinformation reported as fact simply because no journalist bothered to take a few minutes to look for an actual published study at the source of the soundbite.
So, is it better to go braless? The answer is yes, if that’s what you prefer. Really, bras don’t appear to be giving people cancer or causing earthquakes in Iran. They exist to give you support if you need it, cleavage if you want it, and nipple coverage if your cultural milieu demands it. If you decide to go without, you may not get perkier breasts and less back pain, but you’ll definitely save the time and cost of a trip to Victoria’s Secret. Maybe that’s worth it.
El pequeño humanoide cabezón que Steven Greer presenta en el documental Sirius como un extraterrestre es, en realidad, un feto humano. Es la conclusión a la que llegó en febrero de 2007 el antropólogo forense español Francisco Etxeberria tras examinar el cuerpo a petición del Instituto de Investigación y Estudios Exobiológicos (IIEE), una organización ufológica. “Se trata de un feto momificado de unas 15 semanas de gestación”, dictaminó el científico, quien hace unos días no daba crédito a lo que sostienen Greer y sus colaboradores, que el ADN de la criatura no es de este mundo. "Es un disparate", me confirmó Etxeberria por correo electrónico.
La historia del ahora famoso extraterrestre comenzó hace unos diez años, cuando el huaquero -saqueador de yacimientos- Óscar Muñoz desenterró el cuerpo en un cementerio en el pueblo abandonado de La Noria, en el desierto de Atacama (Chile). El ser estaba envuelto en una tela blanca. Desde el principio, hubo quienes indicaron que era un feto. Eso dijeron el ufólogo Rodrigo Fuenzalida y el biólogo Walter Seinfeld, de la Universidad Arturo Prat, en el periódico La Estrella de Iquique en octubre de 2003. Pero el negocio del marciano arrinconó pronto cualquier atisbo de racionalidad.
Pocas semanas después, el empresario local Ricardo Clotet, que había comprado la criatura al huaquero, cobraba 500.000 pesos (860 euros) por dejar hacer una foto del ser y 750.000 por dos, además de pedir 80 millones de pesos (unos 113.000 euros) a quien quisiera adquirirlo. Al final, el pequeño humanoide fue comprado, por una cantidad que no ha trascendido, por el ufólogo español Ramón Navia-Osorio, del IIEE, quien en febrero de 2007 lo llevó al VI Congreso Mundial sobre Momias, celebrado en Tenerife (España), con la intención de que lo examinaran expertos.Examen forense
“La primera noche en el hotel estaban reunidos una serie de investigadores, y Jaume (Ametller, otro ufólogo) indicó la necesidad de enseñarles la momia. Estábamos en uno de los salones, con una intensidad lumínica ínfima, más apropiada para parejas que para personas que se habían citado para charlar. La momia pasó rápidamente de mano en mano y nadie hizo ademán de acercarse a la luz. De por sí, el ser es oscuro y con la oscuridad reinante no podían percatarse de los detalles más elementales para hacer un somero estudio. Pues bien, esos doctores dictaminaron sobre la marcha que era un feto y, además, de pocas semanas”, recordaba años después Navia-Osorio en Espacio Compartido (Nº 50), la revista del IIEE.
Aquello fue más de lo que el ufólogo estaba dispuesto a aguantar. “Estoy cansado de soportar a tantos doctores con un puñado de títulos y cobrando del erario público para decir sandeces”, advierte en su crónica de los hechos. Decepcionados, Navia-Osorio y Ametller pidieron entonces al antropólogo forense Francisco Etxeberria que examinara el cuerpo e hiciera un informe pericial.
Etxeberria es una autoridad mundial en su campo. Es profesor de Medicina Legal y Forense de la Universidad del País Vasco, presidente de la Sociedad de Ciencias Aranzadi y subdirector del Instituto Vasco de Criminología. Intervino en 2011 en los análisis que determinaron que el expresidente chileno Salvador Allende se suicidó durante el golpe de Estado de 1973; participa desde 2000 en la exhumación de desaparecidos durante la Guerra Civil española y la dictadura franquista; ha colaborado en la investigación de numerosos asesinatos; y ahora mismo se encuentra en Chile intentando esclarecer las causas de la muerte del poeta Pablo Neruda.
El forense examinó el extraterrestre de Atacama en Tenerife el 24 de febrero de 2007 y, cuatro días después, redactó un informe que no deja lugar a dudas. Coincide en sus conclusiones con lo sostenido por los expertos cuyo juicio había despreciado Navia-Osorio. “En su conjunto -escribe Etxeberria-, la proporcionalidad de las estructuras anatómicas (esqueléticas y de partes blandas), el grado de desarrollo de cada uno de los huesos y su configuración macroscópica permiten interpretar, fuera de toda duda, que se trata de un feto humano momificado completamente normal”. Y añade: “La longitud de las clavículas es de unos 15 milímetros y la de los fémures de unos 20 milímetros. Tanto por la longitud total del cuerpo como por las longitudes de estos huesos, se puede estimar que se trata de un feto con una edad de gestación próxima a las 15 semanas”.La pataleta del ufólogo
Navia-Osorio se tomó muy mal el informe de Etxeberria. En las conclusiones de su artículo de Espacio Compartido -que incluye el texto del antropólogo-, desprecia el dictamen de éste y de otros expertos. “Podemos decir que tenemos algo merecedor de estudio, pero pocos han considerado la pieza como digna de un meticuloso examen. Por lo visto, nadie se ha molestado en analizarlo anatómicamente paso a paso, los que lo han hecho han afirmado que no conocen nada igual. [...] No tenemos pruebas concluyentes que determinen la naturaleza del espécimen. En este proceso, las personas más indicadas para saber si es o no feto son las madres que han tenido hijos, pues a todas a las que hemos preguntado han dicho que es imposible que eso sea un feto. Me fío más de las madres, que de aquellos otros que por miedo dicen lo que no piensan. Y así, poco a poco, se va escribiendo la historia, naturalmente toda falsa”.
La reacción es digna de una antología del disparate. El ufólogo español miente cuando dice que nadie ha analizado el cuerpo anatómicamente: lo hicieron Etxeberria y, en menor medida, los científicos a quienes se lo mostró en el bar del hotel de Tenerife. Y, como los resultados no son de su agrado, ya en el colmo del proceder pseudocientífico, sentencia que no puede tratarse de un feto humano -lo que mantienen los científicos- porque ninguna madre que lo ha visto lo ha reconocido como tal. Ridículo, ¿verdad?
Ahora, Steven Greer asegura que sus expertos han hecho un análisis de ADN del extraterrestre de Atacama y aseguran que es alienígena. Basta ver en la web del documental Sirius el plantel de supuestos científicos que han participado en la investigación para no creerse nada de lo que diga el director del Proyecto Revelación. Es posible que Greer saque dinero de este montaje, como hizo Ray Santilli en 1995 con la falsa autopsia de Roswell, pero no va a descubrir nada que los científicos no sepan ya: el extraterrestre de Atacama es “un feto humano momificado completamente normal”.
Daniel Loxton is the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the ten page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine). He’s is the author and illustrator of the national award-winning kids’ science book Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be and is also the author and illustrator (with Jim W.W. Smith) of Ankylosaur Attack, a paleofiction storybook for ages four and up.
Ankylosaur Attack was just the first book in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series from Kids Can Press. Pterosaur Trouble is out now and those attending the next Amazing Meeting in July will be treated to a preview of the book co-authored with fellow Skeptic.com blogger Professor Donald Prothero, Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.
Daniel has written for critical thinking publications including Skeptic, Skeptical Briefs, eSkeptic and the Skeptical Inquirer, and contributed cover art to Skeptic, Yes mag, and Free Inquiry.
Kylie Sturgess: Firstly, there's a lot of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals to choose from—why this pterosaur, Quetzalcoatlus?
Daniel Loxton: First of all, Quetzalcoatlus is just inherently awesome. These critters and their close relatives were the largest fliers the world has ever known—like, the size of a small airplane. The preposterousness of a creature that large taking to the air is just totally seductive. We're talking about animals that could, as Tetrapod Zoology's Darren Naish and other pterosaur enthusiasts like to point out, look a giraffe in the eyes while standing on all fours.
But what cinched this animal as the focus for Book Two of my Tales of Prehistoric Life series was learning of a specific fossil find by a young woman named Wendy Sloboda and other staffers and volunteers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum: bones from Quetzalcoatlus or a similarly enormous close relative that had been gnawed on by the small, Velociraptor-like dinosaur Saurornitholestes in Cretaceous Alberta. That's an almost Lilliputian scenario: a giant devoured by dinosaurs much, much smaller than it. How did that happen? Was the big pterosaur scavenged, or did the little dinosaurs somehow manage to hunt it successfully? The more conservative scavenging possibility is discussed in the nonfiction page at the back of the book, but I couldn't resist letting the most spectacular interpretation inspire my paleofiction bedtime story….
Kylie: What's involved in the process of creating a picture book like this - the stages and revision?
Daniel: The goal for Pterosaur Trouble and the other Tales of Prehistoric Life series books is persuasive photorealism—or heightened realism, anyway. I want it to look like I just popped back in time with my camera and took some nature photographs. That concept constrains every aspect of the creation of the illustrations. Let me tell you, the step between “cool computer generated representation of a prehistoric animal,” and “Hey, that looks real!” is a doozy.
Achieving that realism, or at least reaching for it, is a process that takes many months of painstaking steps and revisions. At its most basic, we create computer generated (CG) creatures and composite them into real world location photographs. Huge, high-resolution, panoramic photo mosaics are shot on location, which form the foundation for the backgrounds. I alter those extensively however—adding in foliage, taking out tourists, altering landscapes and sky however the story requires. Likewise, the massive sixty-seven megapixel texture maps for each animal's skin are built up from real world photoreference from live animals, museum specimens, roadkill, my friends and relatives, and even a Christmas dinner.
Pterosaur Trouble especially benefitted from behind-the-scenes access to extensively photograph bird and bat specimens from the collections at the Royal British Columbia Museum.
Once the creatures are designed, sculpted, textured, and posed, I design a virtual lighting scheme to match the lighting conditions present in the background photography. Then I render the animals out in many passes, using a 3D rendering program on a computer: a pass for the diffuse light, a pass for reflections, a pass for specular highlights, a pass for fill light, and so on. Some passes take days each to render at the massive resolutions I need for print.
I render twenty or thirty such passes for each illustration, then stack those up in Photoshop and begin to really get to work. The magic happens (assuming it happens at all!) in the very last steps of this compositing process of blending together many elements into a seamless, photorealist whole. It's a complicated and lengthy process that has to be done in a certain sequence. The illustration can't come to life until you get to Step Z—but if you don't get the foundational work for Steps A, B, and C right several months earlier, then Step Z won't ever spark the way you hope it will.
Kylie: Looking over the illustrations, there seems to be a lot of envious dinosaurs checking out the Pterosaur's flight! What are some of the considerations that you have to take into account when creating dinosaur art—particularly so many different kinds?
Daniel: Paleoartists tend very strongly to follow the lead of other paleoartists. That's natural—by and large, we're artists, not scientists. We speak art, we read art, and we learn from art, as artists have for millennia. So we wind up conforming, very often, to the conventions and reconstructions of other artists. That's why virtually every depiction of the pliosaur Liopleurodon since 2000 has given the animal a black and white pattern, from illustrations to toys: it's the way that the texture artists of the Walking With Dinosaurs television series did theirs, and theirs was the awesomest.
There is an interesting meta-conversation happening now in paleoart circles, with projects like the new book All Yesterdays by John Conway, C. M. Kosemen, and Darren Naish seeking to deconstruct some of the conventions of our practice. These creatures were ordinary animals in their time, after all, not movie monsters. They must have spent a lot more time strolling, playing, and having naps than they spent struggling titanically for survival—but you wouldn't know it by the ubiquitous action shots we depict in dinosaur art.
Pterosaur Trouble and Ankylosaur Attack are intended for kids, so your readers won't be surprised to hear that there is indeed a big fight in each book. But I wanted to show these animals doing other stuff, too: ankylosaurs honking curiously at the animals in the sky, pterosaurs ignoring the goings on the ground, animals waking up or poking about for breakfast, or just plain traveling on.
Kylie: What do you consult when it comes to accuracy, particularly when new discoveries are made (e.g. movement of dinosaurs)?
Daniel: For the first book, Ankylosaur Attack, I relied to begin with on my own knowledge and research. Paleontologists Donald Prothero and Jason Loxton looked over the illustrations for me informally, as I completed each one, and ankylosaur expert Ken Carpenter kindly vetted the nonfiction section at the back of that book.
For Pterosaur Trouble and the third book (in production now) we brought in paleozoologist Darren Naish right at the beginning of the process, to help me keep the book grounded in real science at every step—sculpting, illustration, plot, and story. That has been tremendously helpful—not only to help me avoid factual errors (like this one I corrected in Ankylosaur Attack after it was published) but also to illuminate new possibilities for science-based storytelling.
Kylie: I noticed (and it's fantastic timing with your book coming out!) some press on “9-Year-Old Girl Gets Dinosaur Named After Her, Makes All Other Children/Adults Jealous,” and yet I also noticed some criticism about the media labeling of Pterosaurs as dinosaurs. Is misidentification that much of an issue?
Daniel: That's a lovely story, and I was delighted to learn of it. You're right, though: many sources misidentified the creature young Daisy Morris discovered as a “dinosaur,” which it was not. Even outlets like Popular Science identified her discovery as “a small species of pterosaur, a flying dinosaur.” In reality, pterosaurs were reptiles of another branch altogether—calling them “dinosaurs” is like calling you a marsupial. As Written in Stone author Brian Switek put it for Smithsonian Magazine, “A pterosaur is no more a dinosaur than a goldfish is a shark.”
A lot of people seem to regard that distinction as “paleo-pedantry.” That reaction sort of baffles me. Why call anything what it is? Why make any factual distinctions? If we're going to talk about stuff, teach, popularize, we might as well value accuracy.
Kylie: What do you have next in the works?
Daniel: I'm working now on Book Three of the Tales of Prehistoric Life series, which will feature plesiosaurs (which were, incidentally, also not dinosaurs). That will be out next year. Before that, though, is my book Abominable Science for Columbia University Press, co-authored with Don Prothero. That's a hefty non-fiction book on legendary animals (“cryptids”) such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, examined through a critical lens. It should hit stores in the middle of 2013.
You can follow Daniel Loxton on his blog at Skeptic Blogs.
In the lore of conspiracism, few religious groups, with the exception of Jews, are more feared or thought to be more powerful than the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). As I write, it was only yesterday that the College of Cardinals elected the first Jesuit pontiff, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis), which makes you wonder: If they were so powerful, what took them so long to ascend to power?
So why are Jesuits so feared among conspiracy theorists? The reasons are many and complex. The Society of Jesus was founded in the mid-16th century, just before the Counterreformation. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, was a Basque soldier who had a religious conversion while convalescing from wounds received in battle. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, a formal regimen of meditation on the life of Jesus, is a foundational document still used in the training of novitiates. Indeed, Ignatius’s Exercises were innovative theology for the time, and Ignatius is occasionally considered the first of the Spanish mystics, who derived knowledge of God not through the sanctioned external authorities of gospel, tradition, and Church fiat, but through revelations from internal meditation (a potentially dangerous and heretical position during the Counterreformation).
I suspect that the word “exercises” is a bit of a play on the Spanish word for army, or ejército, as the order has retained a hierarchical structure and members adhere to a vow of obedience, giving them a bit of military feel. Indeed, the head of the order is known as the Superior General, and the internal hierarchy gives missions to its members largely independent of the rest of the Catholic hierarchy—the Superior General is an appointment for life and he has full control over the order. (For this reason, he is often described by conspiracists as the “Black Pope.”) The vow of obedience became crucial in the development of the Jesuits’ reputation as missionaries, as members could be ordered to the far corners of the world to spread the gospel. And they were. The earliest Jesuits very quickly found themselves dispersed around the world, in India, China and Japan, as well as in the Americas. As part of their missionary charge, the Jesuits established schools around the world (indeed they had dozens of universities around the world by the time Ignatius died in 1556). As a result they are known as an especially erudite order (or to conspiracy theorists, “shrewd”), and they have had a long tradition of being especially friendly to the sciences.
While the educational aspect of Jesuit tradition is likely one source of the widespread suspicion of the Jesuits, as educational institutions nexuses of influence in conspiracy lore, the fact that Jesuits do not have a specific ecclesiastical garb is probably far more central to their perceived untrustworthiness. The Society’s founding documents detail that Jesuits’ clothing “should have three characteristics: first, it should be proper; second, conformed to the usage of the country of residence; and third, not contradictory to the poverty we profess.” Conspiracy theorists have taken this to mean that the Jesuits intend to “blend in” and pass unnoticed. This idea was transformed into a perceived political threat that the Jesuits were thought to pose, as exemplified in a note from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1816:
I do not like the late resurrection of the Jesuits. [...] Shall we not have more of them here, in as many shapes and disguises as ever a king of the gypsies … assumed? In the shape of printers, editors, writers, schoolmasters, &c? … If ever any congregation of men could merit eternal perdition on earth and in hell, it is the Company of Loyola.
Furthermore, during the Counterreformation, the Jesuits could not avoid political entanglements and controversy in Europe, as they worked hard and largely succeeded in keeping Poland from becoming Protestant. Additionally, a handful of Jesuits were implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, lending credence to the notion that the Order was seeking to manipulate world events. Lastly, the Jesuits maintained a special and complicated relationship to the French crown; by the time of the Revolution, the King’s confessor was traditionally a Jesuit. The aristocracy viewed the Jesuits as suspicious because of their presumed influence over the monarchy and association with the Vatican; the general public, unable to criticize the king directly, turned criticism of the Jesuits became a sort of shorthand for criticism of the crown.
The Jesuits possess a number of features that one expects to see in a group of potential conspirators. They are a transnational entity, which to some puts their loyalties in question. Their profession of loyalty to the Pope raises further concerns—indeed a whole imaginary initiation rite has been attributed to the Jesuits, which reads in part:
I do further promise and declare that I will, when opportunity presents, make and wage relentless war, secretly and openly, against all heretics, Protestants and Masons, as I am directed to do, to extirpate them from the face of the whole earth; and that I will spare neither age, sex nor condition, and that will hang, burn, waste, boil, flay, strangle, and bury alive these infamous heretics; rip up the stomachs and wombs of their women, and crush their infants' heads against the walls in order to annihilate their execrable race. That when the same cannot be done openly I will secretly use the poisonous cup, the strangulation cord, the steel of the poniard, or the leaden bullet, regardless of the honour, rank, dignity or authority of the persons, whatever may be their condition in life, either public or private, as I at any time may be directed so to do by any agents of the Pope or Superior of the Brotherhood of the Holy Father of the Society of Jesus. In confirmation of which I hereby dedicate my life, soul, and all corporal powers, and with the dagger which I now receive I will subscribe my name written in my blood in testimony thereof; and should I prove false, or weaken in my determination, may my brethren and fellow soldiers of the militia of the Pope cut off my hands and feet and my throat from ear to ear, my belly be opened and sulphur burned therein with all the punishment that can be inflicted upon me on earth, and my soul shall be tortured by demons in eternal hell forever.
This was in fact a late seventeenth-century forgery on the scale of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was authored by Robert Ware and is a prime example of what Richard Hofstadter called anti-Catholic “pornography of the Puritan.”
In nineteenth-century America, the Jesuits were singled out as especially dangerous. In the 1830s, the same decade that saw the original publication of Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, the publication of Richard Baxter’s Jesuit Juggling. Forty Popish Frauds Detected and Disclosed. That same year, 1835, saw Samuel B. Morse’s (yes, that Samuel B. Morse) publication of Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, which posited that Jesuits were being sent to this country by Austria (?!?) to foment revolt. One book, the 1851 publication The Female Jesuit, or, The Spy in the Family, was likely inspired by a line in the Robert Ware’s fabricated oath: “[...] I will place Catholic girls in Protestant families that a weekly report may be made of the inner movements of the heretics.”A Jesuit berates children attending public, not private school. From O.E. Murray’s The Black Pope, or the Jesuits’ Conspiracy Against American Institutions, 1892.
By the end of the nineteenth century, fears of Jesuits (and Catholics in general) centered on the role of Catholic parochial education on the youth of the nation, with special attention to which Bible should be used in public schools, the “Romanish” or Protestant Bible. The growing influence of Catholicism in public life was indicative of the demographic shift that had started with the influx of poor Catholics in the early nineteenth century which eventually led to the political mainstreaming of the Catholicism in the twentieth (though conspiracist insinuations of Rome’s potential political influence on the White House dogged Kennedy during his election campaign).
The most visible modern incarnation of anti-Jesuit conspiracy theory seems to draw heavily on Christian fundamentalist fears of the end-times and David Icke–levels of paranoia. I am talking about Eric Jon Phelps, who runs the website Vatican Assassins. Until this week, the website looked like it had been abandoned, as the “News” section hadn’t been updated in almost 400 days, but the election of a Jesuit “White Pope” seems to have brought Phelps back to the website. According to the latest, surprisingly short post: “Vatican Assassins and Eric Jon Phelps will be making a groundbreaking announcement in the coming weeks.”
Phelps has woven a narrative of the type Michael Barkun terms a “superconspiracy,” which is characterized by vast, nested hierarchies of hidden influence. In the case of Vatican Assassins, the Jesuits are actively bringing about the end-times and are the powers behind...well, almost every atrocity, including the Holocaust. (The Southern Poverty Law Center has an excellent write-up of Vatican Assassins.) I interviewed Phelps a couple of years ago at an “alternative knowledge” convention in Atlanta a few years ago. As there were a large number of UFO conspiracy theorists in attendance, I asked him what he thought of aliens, and his answer confirmed to me that I had found my calling:
There are no such things as aliens. The ‘Grays’ are creations of the Jesuits in their deep underground military bases through their genetic experimentation. All the grays are hybrids. They cannot reproduce; they live short lives; they are lesser than what a man is—that’s one of the signs of a hybrid. What I maintain is that the Jesuits have perfected their antigravity craft, and god knows what other technology, and so what they did when they crashed at Roswell, they put those little creatures in there.
Because when you inadvertently reveal one secret technology, the really clever conspirator covers it up with…another secret project. Because nobody would expect that.
The Skeptic is the unwanted visitor to the paranormal-themed discussion. Questions are unwelcome; they spoil the fun. “Why do you bother nagging on the ghost hunters, the Bigfoot believers, and the UFOlogists,” they ask, “Why not go do something to stop real harm?”
Should skeptics leave some topics alone? No.
When I researched amateur paranormal investigation groups, I saw participants strive to incorporate science on their own terms. They did not want critique and closed the door on any hint of “skeptical” inquiry. In order to even talk to them, I had to conceal my skeptical persona. I still see that evident to some degree today. Skeptical discussion of these topics gets far less attention than those persons or media that promote the outrageous and mysterious aspects.
It is obvious that many proponents of ideas on the fringe are annoyed by skeptical probing. We ask for specifics. We question assumptions. We aren't bowled over by the evidence. We are pains in the butt messing up their beloved theories.
This post is a continuation of what I wrote in my last entry for Sounds Sciencey: Burning the Mean and Disparaging Skeptic Straw Man. In that post, I explained how I had appeared on a “pro-paranormal” (for lack of a more accurate term) podcast with mostly positive, but overall mixed results. Following that appearance, irritation erupted from a few of the online paranormal writers that skeptics should just stick to certain topics and leave the ghost hunters and Bigfoot enthusiasts alone. For example, this blurb appeared on The Anomalist website (emphasis is mine):
How can one bridge the gap between paranormal researchers of all stripes with skeptics? By hearing out the other side. Tim Binnall has a long interview with skeptic Sharon Hill. The common ground covered here is going after homeopaths and antivaxxers who ultimately hurt people. We question the invective directed towards ghost hunters and company, comparing them to juggalos for instance, whose greatest crime is trespassing in a place regular people don’t care about. The application and advancement of science would be better spent pursuing curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning the environment than taunting sexagenarians with MUFON as their homepage. Whether you agree or not, this episode is provocative to say the least.
The Anomalist writer seemed to regret phrasing it this way but did not take back the sentiment. I took this as defensiveness. There are several things troubling about this attitude. First, skepticism is not the same as application of science though we use the tools of science. I can't cure cancer. Second, in no way did I intend to give the impression that paranormal investigators are a terrible thing. I happen to like the concept of an overarching body like MUFON, so this characterization does not apply to me as a skeptic. The straw man reappears.Go Do Something More Important
When I comment on these topics on popular websites, I’ve been regularly told to go back to my cubicle, my high horse, my “lonely room,” wherever they imagine that skeptics go to feel self-satisfied. My opinion is rarely appreciated but I'm not surprised. Hey, skepticism is not the fun club. But the world is not all games and good times. In contrast to those who accuse me of being closed-minded and a “martyr” to the skeptical cause (whatever that means), I gladly put out the question on my personal blog for people to chime in about this topic: Should skeptics limit themselves to certain topics?
Oddly, an oft-repeated theme of discussion in the skeptical community is exactly this—paranormal topics are silly and unimportant, so serious subjects like health claims, religion, and even social justice issues should be in the forefront. One argument against that states that a scope that was too wide would cause “skeptical activism” to lose focus, uniqueness, and purpose.
Here, I'm going to concentrate on the premise that the paranormalists stated: There is little/no harm in paranormal pursuits. Skeptics should go do something “more important.”
Is there specific harm in ghost hunting, paranormal pursuits, and believing in Bigfoot? Harm is hard to pin down. We can't presume what is harm for one person is for another. The real conversation may be instead about risk versus benefit. Is it worth the investment of time, money, and emotion? Does it lead to positive or negative consequences?
A paranormal conference of about 500 attendees happened in Gettysburg, PA in March 2013. I spent three days surrounded by paranormal investigators and enthusiasts. What I found, among many other useful observations, was that these people are serious. For many of the speakers, this is their life.
Any hobby can become an obsession, wreck your finances, and ruin your relationships. That can be said about weekend trips to find Bigfoot or a collection of Beanie Babies that overtakes your home. But paranormal pursuits have special features. Some paranormal investigators or Bigfoot enthusiasts have defined themselves in terms of this pursuit. It becomes an integral part of who they are. They become committed to “proving” something to the world. For some that began paranormal interests as a hobby, it is now the way they interpret everything that happens to them in their lives. The spirits come home with them, they fear their lives will be drastically disrupted, some fear they may be made ill from the evil energy. It's that extreme. In a conference of 500 people, it's not a minority view.
I saw people cry with emotion. I heard people tell stories about being pushed or choked by entities. One woman described how on a ghost hunt the previous night, her daughter and then the two other family members felt a malevolent presence try to suffocate them. Listeners were either fearful or jealous they only heard knocking on their respective ghost hunt. Many seemed to completely accept that this happened exactly in the dramatic way it was related.
Of course, not everyone is this serious. Some do it just for fun. Their pursuit or belief in weird things enhances their joy of life. The trouble is that I can't see a line of demarcation between having fun and being more seriously involved. The problem is with the claims made about cryptids, UFOs, and the paranormal. They claim they are real and are a valid explanation for a phenomenon.
Paranormal people tell me they are skeptical of real snake oil salesmen and support stronger consumer protection. They also dislike the celebrity quacks and fake medical treatments. Why don't us skeptical buttinskis stick to that life-threatening stuff instead? This argument to exclude targets for skepticism does not wash. First, there will always be the argument that X is more harmful than Y. There will always be another X. Is homeopathy more of a problem than acupuncture? Are fake cancer cures worse than homeopathy? What about campaigns against fraudulent psychics? Everyone has their own pet subject that gets on their nerves and makes them passionately angry. As with interests, expertise is specific. We all have our knowledge specialties. There is plenty of room for various topics. For all the positive play on any subject, there ought to be a fair critique to balance it out. If it's out there, it's open for comment.
“Go pick on someone else, we don’t want you here,” they say. Of course you don’t. But, I’m not picking on you personally; I’d attempt to apply this protocol to ANY claim out there. Skeptics don't harass the neighborhood ghost hunters. We argue about the claims ghost hunters make—that they have evidence for paranormal activity, that there is spirit energy in the house, that anomalies in environmental variables are the effects of psychic energy. Scientists work long and hard to obtain their expertise and are subject to community criticism. If you start making claims, especially ones that go against well-established natural laws, you are GOING to get called on it. The portrayal of ghost hunters as “scientific” or having credible knowledge feeds public scientific ignorance. We can’t afford that.
There are paranormal clubs that cater to kids and students. At the paranormal convention, which was quite a family event for all ages, there were dozens of kids that attending the Junior ghost hunt. It can be argued that teaching kids to seek out paranormal activity is encouraging belief-based thinking, contributing to the willful ignorance of the students by teaching them how NOT to be skeptical.
To be clear, I’m not about taking away freedom to believe, to spend your money on whatever you wish (even unproven cancer treatments). Obviously, the paranormal field brings excitement and a feeling of purpose to many who participate. I admit I have some confusion over the goals of paranormal investigators these days.Fun or Do You Want to Know?
Either you want to understand the phenomena for real or you don't and just play around instead. When does it cross the line from being just fun to serious stuff? Even if you say this is for “entertainment purposes only” some people will confuse it with reality. Psychics and astrologers are advertised for entertainment but people make life decisions based on their advice. Another example is the TV show Finding Bigfoot. Is it entertainment? It is for some. Many people, however, absolutely think it's scientific and real. Even though they know they are watching a TV show, they imitate what is done, and by the exposure alone, it increases the familiarity of the concept that Bigfoot is real. I gleefully poke holes in the Finding Bigfoot nonsense because they are making claims that the creature is out there. If they were portraying this as less than serious, I'd have no issue. Instead, they are making factual claims. I am going to call it out as ridiculous for anyone who wants to listen.
If you want actual answers, then you need a skeptical approach, not the half-baked idea of skepticism that most paranormalists have. (A “skeptic” is anyone who asks questions.) Systematically eliminating the options takes work and objectivity. If you really want to best explain the experience, you need to be open-minded enough to consider that your current interpretation is wrong.
To immerse yourself in the paranormal culture means you run the risk, however small, of becoming detached from reality, obsessed with communicating with the dead or discovering the monster in the woods. Listening to one conference speaker talk about “holy shifts,” she described how the paranormal was her gateway drug to new spirituality. She started out with the scientific outlook and now is more religious. Perhaps this makes her happy and fulfills a need or perhaps this is the wrong path. It's not for me to say. But when she claims that she spoke to a ghost, this is certainly fair game for rational critique.
Acknowledgements: Tim Binnall, Cherry Teresa, Barbara Drescher, Mike McRae, Ben Radford, Samuel Rich, Blake Smith, Ken Summers, George Stadalski, David Bloomberg, Jeff Wagg, Sciencism Admin, Cuttlefish Poet