Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Mount Rainier isn’t just where seminal UFO figure Kenneth Arnold saw “flying saucers” in 1947; the majestic mountain actually plays a more direct role in saucerology.
Majestic Mount Rainier in Washington’s Cascade Mountains seems to attract—even help produce—flying saucers. During a few days in October 2013, one of us (Nickell) was able to twice fly over and even walk upon and explore the rarified slopes (at over 5,500 feet) of the still active volcano. Here we put our heads together to look at Mount Rainier’s continuing role in the history of UFOlogy.Mirage Saucers
As students of saucerology know, private pilot Kenneth Arnold famously saw nine “flying saucers” in an echelon pattern over the Cascade Mountains in the vicinity of Mount Rainier on June 24, 1947.
Arnold’s UFOs have been variously interpreted: airplanes flying in formation, a flock of American white pelicans, balloons, even droplets of water on his airplane’s windshield. However, one of us (McGaha, in Nickell 2007, 15–16) has hypothesized that it is more likely the several culprits were optical phenomena called “mountain-top mirages.”1
This phenomenon, as shown in photographs (e.g., Menzel 1953, 212), gives the appearance of hovering, saucer-shaped craft. Due to the conditions that produce a mirage, it is the mountain tops themselves that appear in artificial suspension above the landscape.
Given the clear skies and smooth air in which Arnold saw the flying saucers, together with the angle of the sun (50.4 degrees above the horizon), all that was needed was a temperature inversion to complete the formula. Normally, air becomes colder with the increase in altitude. Sometimes, however, the situation gets reversed. For example, the ground cooling rapidly at night can cool the air directly over it, and since the layer above that is naturally warmer, the result is a temperature inversion. This causes light rays that pass through the air to bend, with images thus becoming distorted and, in the case of mountain-top mirages, also appearing displaced (Sachs 1980, 321).
Arnold’s own statements about his sighting help to bolster the case for just such mirages being responsible. He said the objects appeared to reflect sunlight and that they even seemed like “reflections” (as from his plane window, which he checked and ruled out). Indeed, “the flashing they made in the sun reminded me of the reflection of a great mirror,” he said, and they “looked like they were rocking” (Bequette 1947). The entire effect would have been enhanced by the position of the sun, its light reflecting off the upper surface of the mirages. He stated that, in addition the “saucer-like” objects were “flying very close to the mountain tops,” seemingly “swerved in and out of the high mountain peaks,” and, he came to conclude, were a formation “in the neighborhood of five miles long”—a large squadron indeed! He saw them—he calculated from “two definite points,” Mount Adams and Mount Rainier—as being 100 miles away, and he got as close to them as twenty-three miles (quoted in Bequette 1947; Clark 1998, I: 139–43).
Mount Rainier was not directly part of the mirage, which was caused by other mountains in the Washington Cascade range, but Arnold did describe the “saucers” as flying approximately south from Mount Baker in the direction of Mount Rainier (Clark 1998, I: 139). Therefore, we characterize the latter as, metaphorically, a “magnet” for UFOs.Holy Mount?
On the anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, states one UFO writer, “ufologists make the trek to Rainier to commemorate the birth of saucerology.” He might have replaced “trek” with “pilgrimage,” since he seems to elevate the mountain to the status of an Olympus or a Sinai. He lists Rainier as one of several UFO “hotspots,” that is, “Areas of concentrated UFO activity that can be treated by UFOlogists as ‘UFO laboratories’” (Glenday 1999, 120, 123).
Yet apart from the Arnold sighting, he lists for the Rainier area only “the infamous ‘Maury Island’ incident, in which a dog was killed and a boy injured by debris discharged by one of six UFOs” (Glenday 1999, 123). Arnold was involved in that 1947 case as well, but as a supposed investigator. He was out of his depth, and it fell to Air Force investigators to expose the case as a hoax, confirmed by confessions of the perpetrators (Clark 1998, 2: 612–14).
Now, Mount Rainier actually plays a more direct role in saucerology, helping indeed to generate what Hendry (1979, 65) calls “saucer-like apparitions”—a striking phenomenon whose secrets we take up next.Rainier as a Saucer Creator
Mountains like Mount Rainier actually help to form clouds into the shapes of flying saucers! Called lenticular (“lens-shaped”) clouds, these smooth, symmetrical formations may take the simple form of a double-convex lens, or they may be much more elaborate, piled into a stack of two or more, as if with a spaceship’s undercarriage below. Such clouds may appear singly, or in groups resembling a squadron of flying saucers (Sachs 1980, 66).
These cloud saucers are seen in and around mountainous areas. They are formed when stable moist air flows over hills or mountains, causing large standing waves to form on the prominence’s downwind side. Should the temperature at the crest of a wave drop to the dew point (the temperature at which vapor condenses) a lenticular cloud may be formed. (Rarely, lenticular clouds may form where no mountain exists, when a front causes shear winds.) Lenticular clouds typically remain stationary and have long durations (Hendry 1979, 65; “Lenticular Cloud” 2013).
A beautiful array of layered clouds was photographed for instance over Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a mountain range in the distance (Sachs 1980, 66). More relevant to the present discussion, another source points out that on some days Seattle, Washington, “is treated to an unusual sky show when lenticular clouds form near Mt. Rainier,” which looms less than one hundred kilometers to the southeast (“Astronomy” 2009).Lenticular clouds over Mount Rainier
Lenticular clouds can actually be reported as UFOs. Investigator Allan Hendry (1979, 65) cites a case involving confusion over these saucer lookalikes, “in which five to six lenticular clouds hung stationary over Peavine Mountain for half an hour in Reno, Nevada,” then “descended into a conventional cloud layer.” Moreover, like airplanes, weather balloons, planets, “shooting stars,” and other aerial phenomena, these cloud formations are subject to atmospheric distortion—caused, for example, by intervening fog, ice crystals, whirlpools of air, and the like. The resulting distorted image may appear especially saucerlike (Sachs 1980, 201). It is possible that among the UFO cases that remain unsolved a few could involve lenticular clouds, possibly viewed under unusual conditions.
One of us (Nickell) spotted a single lenticular cloud hovering right over the top of Mount Rainier. He was riding in a shuttle to the Seattle airport with physicist and CFI board member Leonard Tramiel (the day after the CFI Summit, a conference in Tacoma, October 24–27, 2013). Some fellow passengers at first thought it was just the mountain’s snowcap, but Leonard confirmed it was indeed a lenticular cloud. Mount Rainer was then obscured by trees and buildings for the next few minutes and, when it next came into view the cloud was gone. Or, as Leonard happily quipped, “It flew away!”Airship Visit of 1896
We turn now to a mysterious UFO sighting at Mount Rainier that occurred half a century before Arnold’s saucers heralded the wave of modern UFOs. It was reported by a couple who described a strange light in the night sky near the summit of the famous mountain. Their account is related in books like Weird Washington (Davis and Eufrasio 2008, 73), but, as one might imagine, there is more to the story.
The original account appeared in the Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 27, 1896, p. 4, under the heading, “What was it? Wonderful apparition seen over Tacoma.” It informs that on the previous Tuesday (November 24) at about twelve o’clock at night, druggist George St. John and his wife were lying abed and saw from their Tacoma Avenue window a strange light “east of Mount Tacoma” (now Rainier). “Mr. St. John,” the newspaper reports, “describes it as having the appearance of a brilliant electric light and looked to be nearly the size of an arc electric light. It flashed often and each time sent forth various colored rays of light, shooting out from the center in every direction, like spokes from the hub of a wheel.” The couple watched the light as it moved slowly from one window to another. The account continued, “It seemed to have a wavering motion and swayed back and forth in its course through the heavens like a vessel at sea in a storm.”
It is important to note that this report came amidst the great wave of “airship fever” that occurred in the United States between November 17, 1896, and the middle of May 1897. Fueled by science fiction interest in the possibility of heavier-than-air flight, the rash of sightings began when something resembling an “electric arc lamp” passed over Sacramento, California, in the early evening of November 17, 1896. Significantly, this was during the annual Leonid meteor shower (its peak in 1896 was on November 14), suggesting it was a large, bright meteor known as a fireball. Newspapers hyped the story, prompting people to look to the skies, and soon almost anything seen in the heavens was thought to be another “airship” sighting (Nickell 1995, 190–192; Bartholomew and Howard 1998, 21–79).
What caused the Rainier light display? We considered a number of possibilities, from the remote to the plausible. We were doubtful of its having been a copycat hoax (the witnesses were aware of the Sacramento event but were considered reputable) (“Seen at Tacoma” 1896). For a variety of reasons, we doubted the possibility of a shared hypnagogic (“waking dream”) experience, although such hallucinations between wakefulness and sleep often involve bright lights and visions (Mavromatis 1987, 14–52). We thought of ball lightning, other unusual forms of lightning, and electrical discharges such as St. Elmo’s Fire (Corliss 1995, 17–55), but they are rare and seem inconsistent with the apparent weather conditions in Tacoma at the time. A scintillating (“twinkling”) star could have produced some of the effects (a planet can scintillate too), but it would have taken a very long time to have moved from one window to another (see Nickell 2012; Hendry 1979, 26).
Because the St. Johns’ experience occurred during the Alpha Monocerotids meteor shower (which peaked on November 21), we considered that the “flashes” the couple reported were possibly meteors, the arc light effect a very large meteor called a fireball, and the radiating colors possibly caused by a bolide, “a bright shooting meteor (fireball), especially one which explodes when it is near the end of its path in the atmosphere” (Mandel 1969, 61). However, this scenario, too, seemed an ill fit with portions of the witnesses’ description. Again, what was the “airship”?Analysis
The San Francisco Call of November 28 had more information. The couple “watched the heavenly stranger over half an hour.” Reported the newspaper: “Mr. St. John says that the varicolored lights were shot forth in all directions. They were emitted from each end and both sides” of the supposed airship. “Some of the lights were white, others red, blue and green. . . . When all the lights were shining the aerial monster seemed encased in a brilliant glow. . . .”
Significantly, the newspaper noted, “The moonlight was not strong enough to permit a distinct view of Mount Tacoma [Rainier], but the airship was seen to approach the neighborhood of the mountain at what seemed to be its exact height, and dart hither and thither as if an exploration was in progress.” At length, the couple tired of watching the scene—suggesting it may have been less dramatic than we might otherwise have imagined—“and went to sleep” (“Seen at Tacoma” 1896).
The radiating colored lights scarcely seem consistent with an imagined airship, or even, for that matter, an extraterrestrial craft. Rather, it seems like something that had an oblong shape (with ends and sides) was hovering, glowing with a bright white light while occasionally rocking in place and causing diffraction of the light, thus producing iridescent colors.
We think this something near the summit of Mount Rainier was most likely a lenticular cloud—forming and reforming itself in place (as such clouds do) and consisting largely of ice crystals. These crystals served to diffuse the light from the moon (which at that date and time would have been above and behind the cloud,2 at an angular distance of 35 degrees), causing it to glow. As it shimmered in place, it sometimes flashed and sometimes emitted colored rays. It is also quite possible that there were multiple lenticular clouds. (We should mention that the St. Johns’ nineteenth-century windows would have consisted of a wavy glass that, covered lightly in frost, could itself have produced some of the effects.) (For a discussion of all these light phenomena, see Minnaert 1974, 232–45.)
According to an authoritative source (Dunlop 2003, 94–95, 108–109), iridescence is among the most common yet most overlooked of optical phenomena. That produced by moonlight, while often more visible, is largely ignored. Iridescence appears “as bands of color around the edges of thin clouds,” including altocumulus, altostratus, and cirrocumulus lenticularis. It is often strongest when the light source is an angular distance of 30–35 degrees. Significantly, the moon on the date and time of the St. Johns’ experience was at 35 degrees and was 78 percent illuminated.Conclusions
As we trust this discussion illustrates, mysteries dart about Mount Rainier and the other mountains of the Cascade range. But mysteries are meant to be solved, and the scientific approach—which seeks to explain rather than hype or dismiss—is the best means to that end.Acknowledgments
We are grateful to CFI librarian Lisa Nolan for much helpful research, and SI typesetter Paul Loynes for patience during many revisions.Notes
1. Menzel (1953, 205–24) provides detailed explanations of the physics and optics of mirages. See also his appendix, “Theory of Mirages,” 300–10.
2. From the St. Johns’ viewpoint, the summit of Mount Rainier was at less than 4 degrees from the horizontal, while the moon on the date given was at 35 degrees. It was 78 percent illuminated.References
Astronomy Picture of the Day. 2009. Online at http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap090203.html; accessed November 1, 2013.
Bartholomew, Robert E., and George S. Howard. 1998. UFOs & Alien Contact. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Bequette, Bill. 1947. Boise Flyer Maintains He Saw ’Em (June 26) and Arnold Insists Tale of Flying Objects OK (June 27), East Oregonian (Pendleton, OR).
Clark, Jerome. 1998. The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., in 2 volumes. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics.
Corliss, William R. 1995. Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena. New York: Grammercy Books.
Davis, Jeff, and Al Eufrasio. 2008. Weird Washington. New York: Sterling.
Dunlop, Storm. 2003. The Weather Identification Handbook. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Glenday, Craig. 1999. The UFO Investigator’s Handbook. Philadelphia: Running Press.
Hendry, Allan. 1979. The UFO Handbook. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Lenticular Cloud. 2013. Online at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lenticular_Cloud; accessed November 1, 2013.
Mandel, Siegfried. 1969. Dictionary of Science. New York: Dell.
Mavromatis, Andreas. 1987. Hypnagogia: The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Menzel, Donald H. 1953. Flying Saucers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Minnaert, Marcell. 1974. Light and Color in the Outdoors. Reprinted New York: Springer-Verlag, 1993.
Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
———. 2007. Mysterious entities of the Pacific Northwest, part II. Skeptical Inquirer 31(2) (March/April): 14–17.
———. 2012. States of mind: Some perceived ET encounters. Skeptical Inquirer 36(6) (November/December): 12–15.
Sachs, Margaret. 1980. The UFO Encyclopedia. New York: Perigee Books.
Seen at Tacoma. 1896. San Francisco Call 80: 181 (November 28); text from California Digital Newspaper Collection.
What was it? Wonderful apparition seen over Tacoma. 1896. The Tacoma Daily Ledger, November 27. Online at http://search.tacomapubliclibrary.org/unsettling/unsettled.asp?load=Tacoma+UFOs&f=ghosts.etc%5Cufos.tac; accessed October 30.
Alom Shaha was born in Bangladesh but grew up in London. A teacher, science writer, and filmmaker, he has spent most of his professional life sharing his passion for science and education with the public. He is the author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook, a copy of which the British Humanists Association sent this year to every secondary school in England and Wales.
Alom was a presenter at the recent World Humanist Congress as a part of a panel discussion on freedom of thought and perceptions of Islam. Recently he’s been working with the Royal Institution on “ ExpeRimental”—a series of short films with fun, easy, and cheap science experiments you can do at home with your children.
Alom Shaha: My first experience as a science teacher began when I went to work a summer camp in America after I graduated. I’d actually had a really miserable time on my physics degree and wasn’t particularly fond of science or science education. But the manager of the camp, the guy in charge, was a giant, big guy called Bob Bear who was generally bear‑like as well by name. He just said, “You’ve got a science degree. You’ll be teaching science.”
I ended up teaching a regular science class to five- and six‑year‑olds, and I loved it. It was really weird. It was just like when you try on a new item of clothing in a shop and it fits perfectly; it just felt like a really natural thing to do.
That was the first time that I thought that I could be a science teacher, so Bob Bear is responsible—a big, scary man who forced me to teach science!
Kylie Sturgess: From science teaching then to science communication via film is also quite a challenging step. Was it just the same in terms of putting on a new suit and finding it fitted?
Alom: My journey into filmmaking and science communication happened as a result of being settled in as a teacher, and then deciding that I wanted to improve as a teacher. I decided to do a master’s in science communication degree and felt that learning about that would make me better in the classroom.
As these things happen, part of that course was doing a work placement at the BBC, and they offered me a job, and I thought, “Well, this looks interesting,” and from there I went to work in TV.
I left teaching, actually, and went to work in TV for a while, and whilst working in TV, I had this wonderful stroke of luck. I was offered a fellowship by an organization called NESTA, the National Endowment of Science, Technology, and the Arts, and I got to go to film school, and I really fell in love with filmmaking. I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged, but there wasn’t a deliberate plan.
Having worked in TV for a long time, I then found I missed teaching. I missed being in the classroom, so I left television, and went back to teaching part‑time, but somehow managed to work things out so that I carried on doing science communication mostly through video.
Actually, what helped me forge the rather peculiar career I have was the advent of YouTube and the changes in technology with the advent of digital filmmaking tools that really brought the cost of filmmaking down. I think that’s what’s allowed me to do the kind of work that I do.
Kylie: With all these activities, now you’ve got a new adventure that you’re involved with, called ExpeRimental. What led to the Royal Institution’s ExpeRimental? Is there an area of need when it comes to science resources online?
Alom: ExpeRimental is very much an evolution of what the Royal Institution has been doing for the past 200 years.
Kylie: So it’s been a long journey to get to this stage!
Alom: Yes, I’m really proud to be working for the Royal Institution because I think it’s very much the birthplace of science communication. Way back around two hundred years ago, they were first trying to communicate science to the public. Very famously, they started the Christmas Lectures. It’s a place where science was done, but also there was a concerted effort to communicate science to the public, to engage the public with science.
ExpeRimental is really the twenty-first-century version of that; it’s online because that’s what allows us to reach big audiences beyond our offices in Central London.
Kylie: What makes ExpeRimental different, say, to turning on the television and watching an episode of a science TV show?
Alom: I think ExpeRimental is not just different from TV programs, I think it’s different from other web content of this sort. Of course, it’s going to sound weird, but for me, this project wasn’t about getting people to watch the videos. That’s not enough. It’s about getting people to watch the videos and then say, “I’m going to go and do that,” so it’s a call to action.
These films are not about entertaining you. They’re not about telling you facts or what is called the “empty bucket” model of science communication. We’re not trying to fill people with information or facts. What we’re trying to do is show people that you can do stuff at home that is scientific in its approach, and that is fun, and interesting, and that you should be doing it, and not just observing it, and not just passively taking it in.
Kylie: What’s some of the fun stuff I could do?
Alom: We’ve got some great stuff coming up in the next few weeks... The first three videos, one of my favorites is the rubber band cannons, which involve say taking a crisps/potato chips tin... an empty soda bottle, and some rubber bands, and a pencil. That’s all you need. Then you can make a device that fires all sorts of projectiles in quite an impressive way!
When we made that film, the children involved absolutely loved it and just carried on with the activity way beyond when we finished filming. The other thing I learned was one of the films about making giant soap bubbles, and I hadn’t realized how easy it is to make phenomenally huge bubbles with just a little string and a couple of sticks.
One of the things we’re trying to do with these films is show people how to do this stuff really cheaply, with stuff that you ought to just have lying around at home or that cost a few pennies. I’m really proud about that, and I’m hoping that’s what will make the films accessible and non‑exclusive. There won’t be financial barriers to trying out these things.
Kylie: It’s got a pretty open target audience then?
Alom: My target audience is the world, Kylie. You know me! I feel passionately about the fact that science shouldn’t be restricted to any particular class of person or any particular gender. What I really hope is that these films do encourage people from all sorts of backgrounds to try our activities.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m setting myself a portfolio because I won’t be convinced this project is a success unless we have lots of evidence that people are doing the activities. It’s not enough that we get lots of hits on YouTube or whatever. I want to see evidence that people are watching the films and then trying the activities. So, if any of your listeners do try the activities, please let us know.
Kylie: Where can people go to let you know and find out more?
Alom: To let us know that they’re trying this stuff, if they just go to facebook.com/ri.experimental, all the resources are on the Facebook page, and they can become members there, and upload photos and videos of anything they’ve tried out.
We’ll be publishing one a week every Thursday for the next seven weeks and hopefully beyond.
You can find out more about Alom Shaha at his website http://alomshaha.com.
A study of federal funding advancing naturopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and energy healing as acceptable medical protocols finds troubling misuse of taxpayer dollars.
When ill, most of us choose to see a physician. If your doctor is caught practicing medicine without a license, he or she may need a criminal defense lawyer. But in 2007 about 40 percent of Americans chose unproven therapies offered by an alternative medicine practitioner, including herbs, spinal manipulation, acupuncture, and energy healing (www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nhsr/nhsr018.pdf). Incredibly, some Americans even reject the safety of vaccines (Offit 2011; 2013).
Currently seventeen states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands license naturopaths. All fifty states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands license chiropractors. Forty states license acupuncturists, and New Mexico, California, and Florida legally allow acupuncturists to serve as primary care providers1. At the national level the acupuncture lobby urged members to petition the Department of Health and Human Services to have acupuncture declared an essential medical service. Federal tax instructions for 2012 provide a line for acupuncture under medical deductions. Because the Affordable Health Care Act mandates coverage of “state licensed alternative medicine practitioners,” “wellness” clinics can be set up under a state licensed practitioner who can employ energy healers and herbalists. What can we expect from their services?
In 1992, Congress, persuaded by personal anecdotes, emboldened by fiduciary interests and the Executive Office, responded to the myth that Americans were in need of alternative medicine by creating an Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM) at NIH. There was no compelling statistical evidence to support this action. From its inception, NIH’s Office of Alternative Medicine and its offspring, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), have funded schools of non-evidenced-based, so-called alternative medicine treatments such as naturopathy, oriental medicine, and chiropractic. The OAM archives from 1992–1999 show that chiropractic received $4 million, and naturopathic $2 million. The total funding for alternative medicine between 1993 and 2000 was $110 million (Green 2001). The yearly funding for OAM grew from $2 million in 1992 to $20 million in 1998 (NCCAM archives first meeting). Since elevation to the status of an NIH center, NCCAM’s annual funding has grown to $128 million. Total funding for NCCAM from 1999–2012 was over $2 billion.
Initiatives established at the first meeting of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (http://nccam.nih.gov/about/naccam/minutes/1999aug.htm) focused on awarding grants for training and career development for alternative medicine practitioners. A reading of these minutes details the council’s presumption that even though the efficacy of non-evidenced based protocols had not been demonstrated, funding for teaching these protocols would proceed. However, the expectation that research publications would verify or strike down the success of a protocol was never voiced. The normal expectation of federal science agencies such as the National Science Foundation is that its principal investigators will disseminate their results by publishing in peer-reviewed journals. For years, evidence has been cited showing that publication bias in favor of studies with positive results and strongly against those with negative is common in the field of medicine (Ionnidis 1998; Goldacre 2012). However, because NCCAM researchers are testing non-evidenced based protocols they should be more circumspect about posting trial results. But a posted result for a NCCAM clinical trial is rare, and substantiation or negation of a CAM protocol arising from clinical trials is seldom published (Mielczarek and Engler 2012; Ross et al. 2012). One of the characteristics of the few published results is an aversion to precise statements. To those familiar with the lack of efficacy of many non-evidenced based protocols, this may not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, NIH’s NCCAM continues to funnel taxpayer funds into dubious research on these unproven—even disproven—alternative medicine protocols2.
Our study of $2 billion in research grants to test the success of CAM yielded no positive result that would alter current evidenced-based medical practice (Mielczarek and Engler 2012). But lack of positive results did not deter continued expenditure of public money for these protocols. In 2000, NCCAM intensified the marketing of unproven therapies by embarking on a twelve-year focus to train non-evidenced based practitioners. From 2000 to 2012, over $76 million was awarded to medical schools and alternative medicine schools to initiate or enhance efforts for teaching CAM.
Our second study, “Nurturing Non-Science” (Mielczarek and Engler 2013) focused on several of these respected medical schools. We tracked the intrusion of these federally funded non-evidenced based protocols into the community clinics and hospitals they served. In addition to the usual litany of acupuncture, bioenergy, herbs, and homeopathy, some of the clinics associated with these respected medical schools featured curious concepts such as “holographic sound healing,” Noetic consultants, and Tibetan energy medicine. These are only a few examples of unbelievable protocols offered by clinics associated with medical schools certified by Association of American Academic Medical schools, AAMC. Specialized medical services for children included Reiki, offered for pediatric heart transplant patients and in a children’s cancer clinic, and a course teaching Reiki to children “even children can heal” (Mielczarek and Engler 2013). Reiki is one of several “hands off, hand waving” healing protocols. This concept violates the laws of physics (Mielczarek and Araujo 2011), yet is now offered in respected medical schools such as Harvard, Georgetown, and Minnesota. Major scientific societies have been remiss in failing to bring NCCAM’s lack of scientific knowledge to public attention. What university would allow a Department of Engineering to market perpetual motion machines or a Department of Astronomy to employ astrologers?Figure 1
The money to install non-evidenced-based curricula in fifty-three formerly respected medical schools totaled $67 million. But the funding went beyond respected medical schools. Included in the twelve-year focus was $8.6 million for curriculum and training at seven schools that graduated alternative medicine practitioners. From 1999, schools for naturopaths, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and oriental medicine practitioners have been recipients of federal funding. Figure 1 shows expenditures for both research training grants and curriculum grants for these institutions. For example Bastyr University received $827,000 for curriculum enhancement. But curriculum grants were only a small part of its NIH funding. Research and training grants bring Bastyr’s total funding for these twelve years to $14 million.
After twenty years, millions in NIH funding, and no evidence documenting success for protocols such as acupuncture, energy healing, or treatment by spinal manipulation, what do these alternative medicine schools and their faculty practitioners currently advertise?
This article examines how taxpayer dollars are used to advance naturopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, energy healing, and herbal potions into American culture as acceptable medical protocols. What is their current support by NIH, our federal agency charged with maintaining health through evidenced-based research and information? We answered this question by studying the websites of these schools, NIH’s Project Reporter, and the NIH database clinical trials.gov looking for publications in peer-reviewed medical journals and for results of their clinical trials funded by NCCAM monies. Alternative medicine organizations’ websites advertise their support from NIH, implying that these medical misconceptions are successful medical protocols and that these programs will lead to successful careers competing with MDs. Profiles of these organizations illustrate how their advertisements for students implies federal acceptance of their curriculum, and how this conjunction helpfully markets their products.The National University of the Health Sciences
NCCAM support 2000–2013: $3.4 million, seventeen grants, twenty-seven clinical trials, fifteen completed, no posted results.
The National University of the Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois, with a branch in Florida, is a school of acupuncture, chiropractic, oriental medicine, and massage, with over fifty faculty members. They “. . . prepare students to become first-contact, primary care physicians who are fully qualified to diagnose, treat and manage a wide range of conditions.” “From 1995-2010, National University has received $5 million in federal grant funding for research, and remains in the upper tier of complementary and alternative medical (CAM) institutions in the research field.” They were “The first institution offering a chiropractic program to receive a National Institutes of Health RO1 grant, and continue(s) to be one of the highest producers of original research in chiropractic medicine.” But its advice for the flu is suspect: “Since each case is different, there is no one single oriental herbal prescription or acupuncture treatment prescribed for every case of cold or flu. An oriental medicine clinician will make a careful diagnosis to determine the exact nature of the energy imbalance in each individual, and prescribe specific herbs that correspond to each patient’s unique imbalance that caused them to contract a cold or flu” (http://www.nuhs.edu/news/2013/1/how-oriental-medicine-views-a-cold-or-flu/). No mention is made of immunizations with the flu vaccine. Their twenty-seven clinical trials studied a range of protocols from Echinacea for treating children with “Recurrent Otitis” to yoga as a relief for multiple sclerosis. Although no posted results have been published for any of their completed trials, four new trials funded by NCCAM are in progress.Bastyr
NCCAM support 2000–2013: $14 million, fifty-eight grants, twenty-two clinical trials, thirteen completed, three posted results; Lombard, WA, and San Diego, CA.
Bastyr’s faculty advice for the flu is similar: “Being a naturopathic physician, I believe in the body’s ability to heal itself. The body can do this very effectively when it is kept healthy. By taking extra good care of yourself and possibly working with a natural health practitioner, you can stay resistant to colds and the flu every winter. Remember, there are many routes to immunity besides obtaining a flu shot” (http://www.bastyrcenter.org/content/view/198/). In stark contrast, the Center for Disease Control’s advice for the flu is an imperative: “All persons aged 6 months and older should be vaccinated annually” (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/whoshouldvax.htm). Bastyr also offers advice for asthmatic children: “Children suffering from asthma might benefit from taking extra magnesium.” But this advice is not well substantiated.
One of the more creative uses of almost a million dollars of taxpayer monies has been three years of grants to Bastyr (H35B11, 4R00AT004711-03) for a clinical trial to determine whether a sauna reduces the “human chemical burden” and promotes “general wellness, detoxification and pain reduction.” There are no posted results or publications revealing the success or failure of this protocol.
Bastyr’s vice president, Leanna Standish, was an original member of NCCAM’s council. From 1994–2000 she was awarded $2 million (Green 2001) and from 2000 to 2013 she was awarded $9.1 million for twenty-two grants. Her NCCAM grants included a study using garlic therapy; a study that concluded that humans could transmit brain wave information to each other; and a collaboration with an Ayurvedic consortium in India: “Many alternative medical systems like Ayurveda, which are becoming popular in the U.S. have originated or are traditional in other countries. Ayurveda is an ancient, multifaceted, holistic medical system from India . . . (the) broad goal of this research is to develop collaborative relationships among researchers from the U.S. and scientists and practitioners in India to develop an international center for CAM research in India to study Ayurveda.” Her clinical study on the “evaluation of Garlic in HIV disease,” four awards totaling $801,000 were withdrawn.
In 2012, seven awards to Bastyr totaled $2.5 million. This money was for use of an intranasal spray for Parkinson’s, using herbs for alleviation of iron overload, and an Asian mushroom Trametes versicolor (PSK) to alleviate discomfort from breast cancer surgery. The latter, a joint study with the University of Minnesota, cost $3.9 million. There were no results posted for the clinical trial testing of eleven women for possible side effects. Total NCCAM funds awarded to several universities to study this mushroom have exceeded $9 million.
Bastyr’s online newsletter informs its students and prospective students how the Affordable Health Care Act can extend the role of naturopathic medicine. Bastyr’s website links to the full text of this provision in the law (http://www.bastyr.edu/news/general-news/2013/01/health-care-law-creates-openings-cam-fields). Naturopathic policy-watchers rejoiced when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, inserted into the law a section stating that insurers “shall not discriminate” against care providers acting “within the scope of that provider’s license” (See http://theintegratorblog.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=658&Itemid=189%5C.)The National College of Natural Medicine
NCCAM support 2005–2012: $2.4 million, fifteen grants, two clinical trials, one completed, no posted results.
The National College of Natural Medicine (www.ncnm.edu) a School of Naturopathic and Classical Chinese Medicine, is located in Portland, Oregon. Its twenty community clinics handle 17,000 patient visits a year and offer treatment by naturopaths and Chinese medicine practitioners. Its website gives specific advice for nasal conditions: “warming socks which draw the congestion from your head” and “homeopathic remedies.” The college’s Helfgott Institute advertises research on magnets, acupuncture, skin resistance, house plants effects on heart rate, and Ayurvedic medicine (http://www.ncnm.edu/helfgott-research/projects.php; http://www.ncnm.edu/about-ncnm/getting-to-know-ncnm/history.php). The college was funded to conduct two clinical trials. One, with sixty participants that was started in 2006, tested whether 450-gauss magnets alleviate carpel tunnel syndrome. No results were posted, but the authors concluded (Colbert et al. 2010) that “the dosages were safe” but they “were unable to inform patients whether the static magnet field was effective or ineffective.” Interestingly NCCAM funded this award after the Federal Trade Commission’s “Operation Cure All” forced purveyors of magnets to cease advertising. Nor were results posted for a second award comparing a “Naturopathic Anti-Inflammatory Diet” to the standard diabetic diet suggested by the American Diabetes Association.
Awards from NCCAM from 2007–2012, to its dean, Heather Lea Zwickey (http://www.ncnm.edu/helfgott-research/research-faculty-staff.php), were $1.1 million for research and training “building a foundation for a naturopathic health services research career. In line with the mission of the AHRQ (Agency for Health Care Research) this program of research investigates naturopathic care as a means to improve the quality, safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of health care delivered in low-income and uninsured populations at the community level.” Its curriculum includes courses in homeopathy, and its clinics offer homeopathic treatment. Courses of study in Chinese medicine train the naturopathic physician in the essentials of manipulating qi and the use of moxibustion at specialized qi points. A course in the “Game of Go” is designed to enhance a student’s qi (http://www.ncnm.edu/images/Publications/2008-2009_NCNM_Catalog_web.pdf).
The school promotes Unda homeopathic remedies: “. . . a type of energetic medicine using diluted doses of substances to effect changes in the body and are reportedly effective for both acute ailments and for chronic, degenerative diseases” and “…homeopathic remedies that are used in Biotherapeutic Drainage,” a technique that purports to help the body’s own physiology eliminate toxins that are claimed to interfere with normal physiological functions. To facilitate memorizing the uses of homeopathic remedies the school recommends its homeopathic flash cards (http://quizlet.com/16683740/ncnm-homeopathy-iii-2012-part-1-flash-cards/). NCCAM’s support of an institution that supports homeopathy is not a new venture. Over the last twelve years NCCAM has funded $57 million for awards that do not recognize that a homeopathic dilution cannot provide a medical protocol (http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/11/19/the-success-of-nccam-grants-on-homeopathy/).Oregon College of Oriental Medicine
NCCAM support 2001–2011: $1 million, seven awards, three clinical trials, two completed, no posted results.
Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (http://ocom.edu/), Portland, Oregon. “OCOM’s academic programs provide students with a solid foundation in acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, therapeutic massage, and qi cultivation, as well as a focus on collaboration between Chinese medicine and Western biomedicine. OCOM’s teaching clinics provide affordable care for general wellness and hands-on experience for students, as well as advanced specialty care for patients facing health challenges.” In addition to acupuncture and electroacupuncture treatment, their clinics feature: herbal medicine, Japanese massage (Shiatsu), Chinese massage (Tuina), moxibustion, gua sha, (scraping the skin), and cupping. Cupping is a suction therapy that supposedly draws out pathogens and increases both qi and blood flow to an area. Movie stars with cupping scars are featured on websites advertising cupping. The Oregon College of Oriental Medicine advertises support received from NCCAM for clinical trials conducted by its faculty or in conjunction with the Oregon Health and Sciences University. The college recently completed a four-year NIH/NCCAM grant, “Acupuncture Practitioner Research Education Enhancement (APREE)” to enhance research literacy and research appreciation in academic and clinical training (http://research.ocom.edu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45&Itemid=55).
From 2001 to 2011, the seven NCCAM awards totaling $1 million for training acupuncturists included a clinical trial enrolling fifty women to determine whether Chinese acupuncture and herbs are as effective as hormone therapy for alleviating endometriosis-related pelvic pain. Clinical trials list it as completed in 2006 with no posted results. The college’s funding also included a clinical trial on multiple sclerosis sponsored by NCCAM in collaboration with Oregon Health and Sciences University: “Acupuncture and herbs study for MS and other medical problems” (http://research.ocom.edu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=49&Itemid=125). Their website advertises the college’s own brand of herbal medicines, formulations for pain, cough syrups, and liniments (http://ocom.edu/index.php/Patient-Care/herbalmedicinary.html). “Feng shui” principles of healing were a basis of design for their new building opened in 2012.Chiropractic Organizations
NCCAM’s support for non-evidenced based medicine included three schools whose primary focus is chiropractic: Northwestern Health Sciences University, the University of Western States, and Palmer. From 1999–2012 NCCAM awarded these organizations $29.7 million for seventy-five grants to strengthen their curricula and training. Included were clinical trials, testing spinal manipulation velocity and manipulation for lock jaw, back pain, leg pain, and headaches. Age groups ranged from adolescents to seniors.Northwestern Health Sciences University, Bloomington, MN
NCCAM support 2001–2012: $2.7 million, twelve grants, one clinical trial recruiting.
Northwestern advertises a recent generous joint award. “We are proud to announce the funding of another large research study that will help determine the optimal number of chiropractic treatments for neck-related headaches. Northwestern Health Sciences University, in collaboration with the University of Western States, was awarded $3.3 million from the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The funding of this study is truly remarkable in these tough economic times. We are very proud of the study’s lead scientists Dr. Gert Bronfort, Northwestern’s vice president of research, and Mitchell Haas, Western States, whose perseverance and commitment to quality are a true testament to leadership and research excellence.” The study’s purpose is “determining the number of visits to a chiropractor for spinal manipulation and light massage necessary for the optimal relief of cervogenic headache” (that is, headache with associated neck pain) (www.nwhealth.edu/research/news/headache-grant/). However, recent published results of Gert Bronfort’s previous NCCAM-funded study of 272 subjects concluded that in the long term, home exercise with advice was as effective as spinal manipulation (Bronfort et al. 2012). It’s not clear why NIH has committed $3 million to restudy this non-evidenced based protocol. Northwestern staffs several clinics with a wide range of specialties. Its chiropractic clinic advertises that they treat any sports related injury and children with colic and middle ear infections (www.nwhealth.edu/bloomington-natural-care-center/clinical-services/chiropractic/). Another clinic sells their product line of medicinal teas, tinctures, and essential oils (www.nwhealth.edu/woodwinds/supplements-and-products/).University of Western States Chiropractic College
NCCAM support 2005–2012: $6 million, sixteen grants, twenty-two clinical trials, one posted result.
University of Western states, in Portland, Oregon (http://www.uws.edu), mentions NIH’s NCCAM as a research partner (https://www.uws.edu/evidence-informed-practice-resources/). Six clinics offer chiropractic services, massage, and acupuncture.Palmer College of Chiropractic
NCCAM support 1999–2012: $16.8 million, forty-four grants, three clinical trials, no posted results.
Palmer is located in Davenport, Iowa; San Jose, California; and Florida. Funds from NIH NCCAM include an award for a $3.5 million center. (U19 AT00466301----06) (http://www.palmer.edu/Research/GrantsandProjects/).
Medical advice from chiropractic organizations can be confusing, creating medical misconceptions. “Make sure you educate your patients every chance you get. An example of this is letting parents know that ‘chiropractors don’t treat ear infections; we take care of subluxations that may help with ear infections. By adjusting the spine, we do several things that may help ear infections, such as help with lymphatic drainage and allow the Eustachian tube to drain properly...It’s helpful to use analogies, such as comparing an ear infection to a blocked sink’” (http://www.palmer.edu/Palmer/Pages/NewsItem.aspx?id=865). And from Western States: “... many patients use chiropractic care for the successful treatment of their non-musculoskeletal conditions such as allergies, high blood pressure, digestive disorders and otitis media” (http://www.healthcentersofuws.com/chiropractic-services/). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics in its report on parental use of CAM for otitis states, although “most (CAM) treatments are harmless, some are not. Some treatments can have a direct and dangerous effect, whereas others may interfere with the effects of conventional treatments. Clinicians should become more informed about CAM, ask whether they are being used. To date there are no studies that conclusively show a beneficial effect of alternative therapies used for Acute Otitis Media” (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/113/5/1451.full).Figure 2
Figure 2 tracks the progress of seven clinical trials funded by NCCAM testing spinal manipulation as a protocol. The sidebar specifies the awards associated with these trials. A taxpayer suffering from headaches or low back pain who is considering chiropractic manipulation for relief from their pain might search clinicaltrials.gov for information regarding the success or failure of a manipulation protocol. However, upon viewing the lack of posted results for completed trials involving hundreds of subjects, reasonable people would probably reject manipulation as a medical choice. They might also question the uninterrupted expenditure of government monies initiating each set of new trials. By searching Project Reporter they would learn that for the last thirteen years at a cost of $29.7 million NCCAM has sponsored grants for spinal manipulation in creatures from cats to people, compared manipulation with yoga, sham procedures, mechanical versus manual, covering fourteen states and Canada, in hospitals and medical schools, with no conclusions about the usefulness of this endeavor. Funded were one hundred projects that included nine clinical trials.
The expenditure of $8.6 million supporting schools educating practitioners of non-evidenced based protocols competing with physicians is an unwarranted use of America’s scarce medical resources. Taxpayer dollars are being directed to a social comfort marketed by a billion-dollar industry. Because websites of these institutions list NIH’s support of their non-evidenced protocols they are effectively marketing acupuncture, naturopathy, chiropractic, and oriental herbal practices as reasonable choices for medical care.
Congress refuses to recognize that endorsing these non-evidenced-based protocols supports a commercial enterprise that has no documented history of solving medical problems. These institutions sell their patients non-evidenced-based protocols even when they violate the laws of physics and chemistry. This is not the path to health care. Is there a congressman who, injured in a car accident or suffering a heart attack, rejects EMTs from the local hospital and insists on calling a licensed alternative medicine practitioner? Would a congressman exposed to hepatitis or SARS virus choose a state licensed naturopathic or oriental medicine practitioner rather than an MD? Surely no members of Congress caring for his or her family would be persuaded by advice that “. . . naturopathic physicians and acupuncturists can meet the health care needs of your entire family . . .” (http://bastyrcenter.org/content/section/4/95/).
A prime example of the failure of alternative medicine in recent history is the well-documented explosion of AIDS in South Africa. Exacerbated by the medical instructions of its prime minister, Thabo Mbeke, South Africa’s government promoted a naturopathic solution to AIDS: a diet that included lemons, garlic, and beet root. Naturopathy, acupuncture, herbs, spinal manipulation, and ethnic medicine provide a mythical comfort but cannot address bacterial or viral infections or diagnose heart disease or cancer. Health problems at the global level are emerging diseases from animal populations (zoonosis), coronavirus (SARS), drug-resistant tuberculosis, and mosquito-transmitted West Nile fever. Does anyone believe these will be solved by herbal potions, spinal manipulation, or warm socks? Improving health in all parts of the globe will come not from wishful thinking but as a result of scientific research.
For centuries, humans traveled to the tops of volcanoes, returned with holy water from Lourdes, bathed in the Ganges on specified days, or climbed the steps of a shrine on their knees. The extent of present-day alternative medicine may not be so colorful but now it is supported by our taxes.
This inconceivable focus on non-science-based medicine betrays the administration’s intent to bring medical care to the poor and less educated. Most Americans do not realize how deeply the Federal government is an enabler of this $34 billion dollar industry. Belief in non-evidenced based protocols, some of which are popular in other cultures, provides a social comfort that NIH has confused with medical progress.Notes
1. The posts of Jann Bellamy, JD, published on www.sciencebasedmedicine.org provide the most complete and current information on state licensing of alternative medicine practitioners.
2. The studies of Edzard Ernst and collaborators such as “Complementary Medicine. The Evidence So Far. A documentation of our clinically relevant research. 1993–2010 (last updated January 2011)” are downloadable from (www.quackwatch.org/08Misc/ernst_cam.pdf).References
Bronfort, Gert, Roni Evans, Alfred V. Anderson, et al. 2012. Spinal manipulation, medication, or home exercise with advice for acute and subacute neck pain: A randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine 156: 1–10.
Colbert, Agatha, P. Marko, S. Markov, et al. 2010. Static magnetic field therapy for carpal tunnel syndrome : A feasibility study. Archives of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation 91: 1098–1104.
Goldacre, Ben. 2012. Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. Faber and Faber, Inc. Macmillan.
Green, Saul. 2001. Stated goals and grants of the Office of Alternative Medicine/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 5(4): 205–207.
Ionnidis, John. 1998. Effect of the statistical significance of results on the time to completion and publication of randomized efficacy trials. Journal of the American Medical Society 279: 281–86.
Mielczarek, Eugenie, and Derek Araujo. 2011. Power lines and cancer, distant healing and health care. Skeptical Inquirer 35(3) (May/June): 40–44.
Mielczarek, Eugenie V., and Brian D. Engler. 2012. Measuring mythology : Startling concepts in NCCAM grants. Skeptical Inquirer 36(1) (January/February): 35–43.
———. 2013. Nurturing non-science: Startling concepts in physician education. Skeptical Inquirer 37(3): 32–39.
Offit, Paul A. 2011. Deadly Choices: How the Anti Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books.
Offit, Paul A. 2013. Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Ross, Joseph S., Tony Tse, Deborah A. Zarin, et al. 2012. Publication of NIH funded trials registering in ClinicalTrials.gov: cross sectional analysis. British Medical Journal 2011:344:d7292.
During March 2014, I held a course on “How Are We Cheated By Charlatans”, explaining the methods, hoaxes and fallacies they appeal to, in order to convince people of their supposed powers or “techniques” and “treatments”. The course dealt with alternative medicine therapies, parapsychology, astrology and so on.
During April and May 2014, I held the classical course called “Beliefs, Pseudoscience and Critical Thinking”, a course held every year, explaining the relationship between our beliefs and how they affect our decisions. Also I dealt with pseudoscience and critical thinking, explaining the basis of pseudoscience and the main goal of critical thinking: how to recognize a fallacy or a bad reasoning.
On the next month I organized “Groups of Reflexion”, a series of lectures, “Why We Believe What We Believe”, and a more philosophical one:“Politically correct: what is useful for?”, and so on. I will continue to hold these lectures as people can express what they think about these items and another ones. That´s because is was named “Groups of Reflexion”.
All these events took place at the Scientific Society of Argentina, in Buenos Aires.
I've also took part on a television show about “Black Magic” and a supposed case of witchcraft involving Umbanda, an African-Brazilian religion that is also popular in Argentina.
In the next months, October and November 2014, I will give a seminar, which I gave last year, based on philosopher Bertrand Russell's book “The Conquest of Happiness”, which was a very successful one. The book is really great dealing with things that ordinary people experience every day: What does make people feel unhappy? What does people feel happy? My interest is to point that a philosopher not necessary must be an “academic” one. On the contrary, he must be able to divulge and analyze ordinary but important things of life.
On the other hand I was invited to give a TED Conference at the UCES University (University of Social and Business Sciences) on next November 12th. The name of the TED Conference will be: “The Matrix Enigma: Beliefs and Illusions”, where I will talk about what is reality, and how can we can be deceived as very bad observer of reality, talking about our beliefs and showing optical illusions and the functions of our brains.
The main goal for me is to organize a Congress on Critical Thinking next year, 2015, which will be the third CFI organize. The first was in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2005) and the next was in Lima, Perú (2006). I hope that we can achieve this goal in order to call the attention of the scientific and journalist community.
Dr. Paul Offit is a lifesaver in the literal sense. His work in vaccinology and immunology, notably the invention of the rotavirus vaccine, has saved innumerable lives. But it is for a literary endeavor, perhaps no less valuable than his scientific work, that he is the 2013 recipient of the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking.
Offit is the author of Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, an indispensable book that boldly takes on the torrent of fantastical claims made by the alternative medicine industry—claims that rake in $34 billion a year for its promoters and put countless lives at risk. Do You Believe in Magic? examines, remedy by remedy, claim by claim, the real, provable effects and harms of a slew of alternative treatments and does so in a way that is entertaining, deeply informative, and emotionally compelling.
“Offit writes in a lucid and flowing style, and grounds a wealth of information within forceful and vivid narratives,” writes Dr. Jerome Groopman, reviewing the book for The New Republic. “This makes his argument—that we should be guided by science—accessible to a wide audience.” Dr. Harriet Hall, herself an invaluable skeptical activist and writer, raved in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer that Offit “is a wonderful storyteller who makes his message come alive.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Evi Heilbrunn wrote, “All who care about their health should read this book.” We agree.
In his book, Offit is merciless in his application of scientific scrutiny to those who peddle false hope, yet never condescending to those who seek out these alternatives. Do You Believe in Magic?, as it disarms and deflates the alt-med industry’s wild claims, most importantly empowers its readers with the information and critical perspective they’ll need to make better decisions about their health and the health of their families.
As we said, Offit is a literal lifesaver. It is quite fitting, then, that the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry award the 2013 Robert P. Balles Prize to Offit for his book, which, as it educates the public about the dangers of alternative medicine, may save many, many more.
The Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking is a $2,500 award given to the author of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. Each year, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer, selects the paper, article, book, or other publication that has the greatest potential to create positive reader awareness of important scientific issues.
This prize has been established through the generosity of Robert P. Balles, an associate member of CSI and a practicing Christian, along with the Robert P. Balles Endowed Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of CSI. CSI’s established criteria for the prize includes use of the most parsimonious theory to fit data or to explain apparently preternatural phenomena.
This is the ninth year the Robert P. Balles Prize has been presented. Previous winners of this award are:
• 2012: Steven Salzberg, for his “Fighting Pseudoscience” column in Forbes; and Joe Nickell, for his book The Science of Ghosts—Searching for Spirits of the Dead
• 2011: Richard Wiseman, psychologist and entertainer, for his book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There
• 2010: Steven Novella for his tremendous body of work, including the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Science-Based Medicine, Neurologica, Skeptical Inquirer column “The Science of Medicine,” and his tireless travel and lecture schedule on behalf of skepticism
• 2009: Michael Specter, New Yorker staff writer and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, for his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives
• 2008: Leonard Mlodinow, physicist, author, and professor at Caltech, for his book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
• 2007: Natalie Angier, New York Times science writer and author of the book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science
• 2006: Ben Goldacre for his weekly column, “Bad Science,” published in The Guardian newspaper (U.K.)
• 2005: Shared by Andrew Skolnick, Ray Hyman, and Joe Nickell for their series of articles in the Skeptical Inquirer on “Testing ‘The Girl with X-Ray Eyes’”
Call for Nominations: There’s amazing work being produced in 2014, with much more on the way. If you’d like to vouch for the author you think deserves the 2014 Balles Prize, contact Barry Karr at email@example.com.
For a variety of reasons scientists are generally advised not to debate creationists, thus the certain trepidation when our colleague, the well-known television science educator and CSI Fellow Bill Nye, accepted an invitation for just such a debate about origins with creationist Ken Ham. The debate took place February 4, 2014, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and was streamed live worldwide. Afterward the Skeptical Inquirer invited Bill Nye to give his own first-person view of this much-watched and much-discussed debate, the circumstances surrounding it, his preparations and strategy, and the reasons he decided to take part.
This whole thing started when a crew from BigThink.com asked me about creationism. I was in New York to promote Internet-based science education. While on camera, I remarked that if you, as an adult, want to hold on to a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint, that’s your business. But we don’t want our kids, our science students, to be indoctrinated into that weird worldview, because our kids are the scientists and engineers of the future. They need to be the innovators that drive the U.S. economy in the coming decades. These were offhand, albeit heartfelt, remarks, nominally off the topic I sat down to talk about. As of this writing, the excerpted video with my observations about creationism has logged over 6.3 million views.
Among the viewers apparently was one Ken Ham, who is the head of a congregation in Kentucky that holds doggedly to the idea that the world is somehow merely 6,000 years old. Furthermore, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for what he calls the “Creation Museum,” a facility across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, in Petersburg, Kentucky. He wrote to me and challenged me to a debate. For several months, I put the offer or proposal aside thinking the whole thing would blow over. After all, his challenge was based on a minute and a half of video that exists with little context. He was persistent. So, as the weeks went by and we corresponded, I acceded the challenge. More specifically, I was willing to come to his facility if the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?” Note that this title does not include the word “evolution,” nor does it connote or imply that we would discuss evolution specifically.
As you may know, once in a while I am invited to offer my thoughts on Fox News. And I love it—I love being in the studio right there with those reporters with the opportunity to look them in the eyes (or lens). As you may infer, I’m not much for their style, and I usually disagree with just about everything a Fox commentator has to say, but I relish the confrontation. I had that same feeling about Ken Ham’s building. I wanted to be in the belly of the beast. I drove by there when I was on other business in Cincinnati a few years ago. The building was closed, but driving around the grounds I saw numerous depictions of ancient dinosaurs. One infamous sculpture featured humans of apparent European descent astride a triceratops-style ancient animal adorned with Christmas lights. I wanted to see the inside someday.
I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.
I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
I believe I am generally not the stereotypical male who refuses to ask for directions. I feel locals usually know the way best. By analogy, to find my way through this debate (which was quickly becoming a big damn deal), I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.
With that said, and everyone profusely thanked, I was going to be on my own in this thing, and I had to make my arguments come from my heart (a metaphor for my point of view—from my brain).
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.
With my experience as a science educator, I like to divide elementary science into three categories: life science (biology), physical science (physics and chemistry), and planetary science (geology and astronomy). And so with the remarkable help of the NCSE and skeptics, I chose arguments from each of these three disciplines.
On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?
Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.
It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.
The night before the debate, I spoke at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The students there were keenly aware of the next evening’s debate. I had a long car drive from one side of the commonwealth to the other. I could not help but notice the layers and layers of beautiful limestone everywhere along the road. We pulled over at a cut where some blasting took place for the road’s right-of-way, and I walked through a few centimeters of snow. I easily picked up three nice specimens of rock revealing several fossilized small shelly ancient sea creatures. I held one up during my opening remarks. There’s an irony that the Creation Museum literally sits atop overwhelming evidence of the true age of our planet.
I’ve got to mention another thing to you all. To a man and woman, all of my advisors, NCSE staff and skeptics alike, strongly felt that the desirable position in a situation like this is to go first. This, many of you believe, puts the onus on the other guy or gal to refute your points. I just don’t see it that way. This may be from experience in television, or it may be my misguided overconfidence; I wanted to go second in the confrontation.
To you go-firsters I say: “You may be right.” I mean you may be right, if this were a debate in an academic session, where there are thoughtful judges from the history department or tort instructors from the law school, who have the ability to determine who said what better than who to whom, per se, et cetera. But this debate was a television show. And my audience was on the worldwide web not in the auditorium. If I get the chance, I go second. I just don’t see it any other way. Whatever Ken Ham talked about, I pretty much planned to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
My agents and publicist induced Tom Foreman from CNN to moderate the event. Mr. Foreman was the ideal man for the job. He’s a thoughtful journalist with a great deal of experience in handling human conflict as he seeks the facts in a story. However, having a respected international journalist sitting on stage with us upped the ante. There would be even more focus and more scrutiny from an even bigger audience. As they say in the theater, if you stop being nervous, stop going out on stage. The key is to take that nervousness or anxiety and convert it to excitement. By the time the debate was ready to start, I sensed that Mr. Ham was nervous, while I was excited.
Tom Foreman, by long debate tradition, tossed a coin backstage. Ken Ham won the toss, and probably taking advice from his people, who were thinking a lot like my people, chose to go first. I was delighted.
From long experience behind unfamiliar lecterns in strange venues, I can tell you: something always goes wrong and you’ve got to roll with it. As I stepped up to my lectern, stage-right of Ken Ham, I realized that I had loaded a previous revision, an unintended version, of my first set of five slides for our first five minutes of presentation. I’ll let you, the viewer, determine which one I intended to leave out. Phew. . . .
If you take the time to watch, Mr. Ham repeatedly mentioned or droned on about the less-than-a-handful of scientists who subscribe to the weird idea that the Earth is crazy (or crazily) young. When my turn came, I talked about geology and the Grand Canyon. Creationists from the United States, or in Australian-born Ham’s case, in the United States, just can’t get enough of the Grand Canyon. I pointed out that not a single fossil form had tried to swim from one rock layer to another during his purported worldwide flood, only 4,000 years ago. Were we to find such a fossil, it would utterly change geology and our scientific worldview. I did a bit of engineering, pointing out that no wooden boat has ever been built as big as Ham’s imagined ark. In fact, the big ones that were built were smaller and generally twisted apart— and sank (for this I used a chart from Ham’s website). I made it personal where possible. The Nyes are an old New England family, many of whom sailed wooden ships. I also spoke of decades in the Pacific Northwest, where I observed the enormous boulders washed westward by ancient collapsing ice dams in what is now Montana.
In keeping with the idea of getting the audience to like me, I spent my first minute and a half on a joke about bow ties. I’m not sure how many of my academic colleagues would have made that choice, but I stand by it.
I pointed out that evolution is a successful theory, because it enables us to make predictions. I showed a map, a fossil, and an artist’s rendering of Tiktaalik, the extinct but quite real lizard-fish. And, I felt joy as I talked about the best theory we have to explain why meta-life forms like dandelions, velociraptors, humans, and minnows have and had sex. Yes, I said, “Sex—sex, sex, sex” to the auditorium audience. Many seemed to have their heads tossed back the way our heads move when we encounter an oncoming two-by-four.
I’ve met several people who loved (or very much enjoyed) my reference to kangaroos. Thanks to Genie and her colleagues for that: If kangaroos got off the ark in Mesopotamia, why aren’t there kangaroos in Laos? (Again, I used a map from Ham’s very website.) Then, from geology: If I find ice that has evidence of 680,000 layers of summer-winter cycles, how could the Earth be any younger? Thanks to Don for that. How can there be 9,500-year-old trees if the Earth is only 6,000 years old? And so on.
Something else I’d like to point out: From the beginning, I told Genie et al., that at some level, this thing has to be fun. Otherwise, it’s hard to be passionate and have the audience like you. Put another way, what is it that you or each of us loved about your favorite teacher or professor? I believe it’s his or her passion. It was Mr. Lang, my teacher who loved physics, who got me excited about airplanes, mechanisms, and electronics. To that end, I included a bit from astronomy. I talked about the big bang and why we, in the rest of the world, believe in it and are filled with joy by it. I figured that Mr. Ham would be at best apologetic, and at worst, just plain bewildered by it. I leave any conclusion about his reaction up to you.
Perhaps there was no winner, as this was not a scored debate. Nevertheless by all, or a strong majority of, accounts, I bested him. The fundamental idea that I hope all of us embrace is, simply put, performance counts as much or more than the specifics of the arguments in a situation like this. I admit that, for me at least, it took tremendous concentration. I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.
After the debate, my agent and I were driven back to our hotel. We were, by agreement, accompanied by two of Ham’s security people. They were absolutely grim. I admit it made me feel good. They had the countenance of a team that had been beaten—beaten badly in their own stadium. Incidentally, if the situation were reversed, I am pretty sure they are trained to feel bad about feeling good. They would manage to feel bad either way, which is consistent with Mr. Ham’s insistence on The Fall, when humankind took its first turn for the worse. And by his reckoning, we’ve been plummeting ever since.
In an interview after the debate, Piers Morgan of CNN asked Mr. Ham about climate change. Ham denied denying it, but I reminded the audience that he did deny climate change in at least one interview. It’s somehow connected, because it points to Ken Ham and his followers’ ability to exclude themselves from responsibility and from nature. It is weird and, for me, troubling.
A few weeks after the debate, Answers in Genesis held an online event in which they announced that they have or had raised the funds for their amazing “Ark Encounter” theme park, or “Ark Park.” I posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, “Here’s hoping voters & journalists wonder: where did all those $ millions come so quickly? After a deadline?” Soon after that, Mark Looy of AIG sent an email to my office assuring me that the bonds had already been secured, before Feb. 4, i.e. before the debate—and before the unrated bonds’ deadline. I could not help but notice that Ken Ham made no mention of this during our encounter, i.e., during the debate itself. I also could not help but notice that his colleagues suggested that the debate helped close certain aspects of their Ark Park deal, later during their online event—at which not a single journalist, or anyone else for that matter, was present. These are details, but it does make me wonder, who donates those millions? I wonder if one project is leveraged against the other. I’ll leave it to the Kentucky journalism community to seek answers in this funding genesis.
I very much hope this whole business galvanizes the people in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and in neighboring states to take the time to think critically about creationism and to vote to remove it from science classrooms and texts. I frankly hope that in the coming few years not a single student in Kentucky is indoctrinated by the Answers in Genesis facilities and staff.
No matter where this leads, thanks to all of you, who’ve helped me over the years and in recent weeks to think critically and speak clearly about science and reason. It’s in the national interest to enlighten young people. The longest journey starts with but a single step. In this debate, we’ve already traveled a long way, but with projects like the Ark Park still in play, there is quite a journey yet ahead. If we keep making our arguments clear, and continue to vote and fight the political fights, together we can change the world.
Copyright Bill Nye
I was driving down Farmington Avenue, a very busy thoroughfare in West Hartford, Connecticut, at a little before seven in the morning (far too early to be up and about) when I spotted an animal crossing the road from my right at a distance of about 200 feet. It seemed to be about as big as a medium-sized dog, but it clearly wasn’t a canine. It was tawny in color, its back was curved, and it loped across the avenue in a strange hopping motion, as if its rear legs were substantially longer than its forelegs. My initial, nearly instant identification of the animal moving so peculiarly across the road made no sense at all in the upscale Connecticut suburb through which I was driving: it was a capybara. That was crazy. Capybaras are extremely large rodents, in fact, the largest on our planet, and they are native to South America, not Connecticut. I have never encountered a capybara in the wild, but I have seen them in zoos, and the animal I briefly glimpsed crossing Farmington Avenue in April 2013 appeared, at least initially, from a great distance and under poor lighting conditions, to be one, at least a small one.
The rational part of my mind recognized almost immediately thereafter that the identification I had come up with was nonsensical. But was it? After all, there is a museum in West Hartford with a small menagerie of wild animals. I know they have a bobcat, lynx, hedgehog, and a number of other critters on display there. Maybe they have a capybara, and it had escaped. Could be. Another possibility was an exotic pet. Yup; do an Internet search for “capybara pet,” and you’ll find numerous webpages in which people extol the virtues of sharing their homes and lives with what amounts to gigantic, über-rats that may weigh in at more than 100 pounds. Maybe, the thought flashed through my mind, a local resident kept a capybara as a companion animal and the poor thing had gotten loose.
Determined to figure out what the animal actually was, I watched as it reached the other side of the road where it initially disappeared into a culvert diverting a stream into a grassy dell. Just past where the animal had entered the little stream valley was a driveway leading to the parking lot of the local Whole Foods, and I turned into it, hopeful but not particularly optimistic that I would see the animal again for a better look and the opportunity to assess my original, seemingly impossible diagnosis of—what? A wayfaring giant South American rodent that had managed to migrate thousands of miles, across numerous national borders, only to end up in Connecticut, a furry alien on its way to shop at the nearby Whole Foods for some free-trade, organic capybara kibble? It seemed ridiculous in the extreme, but at least based on my initial observation, that’s exactly what I thought I had seen.
Looking to my left as I drove into the Whole Foods parking lot, amazingly, I saw the creature again, was able to view it at a much closer distance, and recognized it for exactly what it was. No, it was not a capybara, nor was it one of its much smaller relatives, the agouti, another South American native. Embarrassingly, it was a representative of a species I was very familiar with for all the grief its kind has given me by breaking into my trash cans. The animal I had initially identified as a giant South American rodent was, in actuality, nothing more than a large raccoon that was moving in a peculiar way because it was missing its right rear leg.
The tale of a resilient raccoon who had managed to survive a traumatic injury to one of its legs and its ability to adapt to its condition so well is remarkable enough. But that’s not the purpose of my sharing this experience with you. My story is a cautionary tale you might consider when you read or hear all of those eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra, and on and on.
The etiology of my misidentification seems clear enough. Barely awake, I spot an animal that, based on its appearance and movement, doesn’t immediately match anything I’d expect to see crossing in front of me on Farmington Avenue. In a virtual instant, my brain leapt into action, searching my neural database for a word, an identification, a diagnosis for the strange and unexpected critter I had just seen. The closest match I could come up with based on what I had briefly observed without preparation was an animal that has no business being in West Hartford. But it’s the best I could do in that instant when my mind was demanding an explanation and attempting to find one based on incomplete and not terribly reliable data.
My initial identification is a reflection of how our brains work. We encounter something out of the ordinary—maybe it’s a strange light in the sky, an unexpected noise in an old house, or an oddly moving animal—and our minds demand an explanation. Even under poor conditions for observation—lighting is weak, the distance is great, we’re tired, we’re not wearing our glasses—we make instant deductions and leap to conclusions, regardless of the sensibility of those deductions and conclusions.
I suppose it’s adaptive, born of our evolutionary history as bipedal hunters on the plains of Africa. Indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, and the survival of our ancestors depended on being careful in the face of incomplete information. Better to interpret the subtle movement in the grass in front of you as a lion intent on making you her meal, better to think you actually see that lion and respond accordingly, than to be skeptical of or even ignore the possible danger. If you’re wrong, all that results is a brief scare: your heart races, and then relief. If you’re right about the lion, however, you just might save your life.
Given the chance, and if we’re curious enough, we accept that our initial deductions and conclusions concerning our observations are merely first guesses and we investigate further. That’s why I followed up on my initial identification and followed the animal as it ran down the side of the streambed where I saw, not a capybara, but a three-legged raccoon doing its thing. Now imagine if I hadn’t gotten a closer, lengthier look at the animal. I might still be telling the story of the feral, peripatetic capybara of West Hartford, Connecticut. Maybe I’d put up a website, collecting other eyewitness accounts of the capybaras of Connecticut, and I’d generate thousands of hits and elicit the reports of, maybe, dozens of kindred spirits who are also certain of the existence of packs of giant South American rodents haunting the forests, hills, and even the cities of southern New England. Don’t think that would happen? Type in the term “Alien Big Cats” in whatever Internet search engine you use and you’ll find hundreds of references to people in Great Britain who claim to have seen large, clearly non-native, wild felines prowling the British countryside. But it is almost certainly the case that there are about as many leopards wandering the moors of Cornwall as there are capybaras crossing West Hartford, Connecticut’s Farmington Avenue.
It’s not that people are stupid (notice how self-serving that statement is since I’m the guy who thought he saw the capybara) or that everybody who sees a Sasquatch, living dinosaur, flying saucer, or ghost is lying. It’s a reflection of the demand placed on our brains and honed by millions of years of evolution, to diagnose and identify what we observe to quickly determine if what we have just seen is friend or foe, something to eat, or something that will eat us. As behavioral scientists we recognize this process. But, apparently, we are not immune to it.
Sparking an international media frenzy, a house in Gary, Indiana, was—according to two unnamed “clairvoyants”—besieged by over 200 demons. Of three “possessed” children, the daughter “levitated”; one son, who talked with an invisible boy, growled and spoke in a deep voice; and his older brother walked backward up a hospital exam-room wall! Investigating Gary police confessed themselves baffled. A captain’s personal car seemed to have become possessed when its driver’s seat began to move inexplicably to and fro.
After the family moved out, the subsequent renter found herself besieged by curiosity seekers after the events were publicized and sought relief. At one point she called police to complain of reporters and photographers who were on her property. The mother of the “possessed” children also was not talking—except to a national TV show with which she reportedly had an exclusivity agreement. Various agencies and individuals were noncommittal as well, citing issues of medical confidentiality and privacy. Nevertheless, CSI dispatched me to investigate the case. As I would discover, the devil was in the details.Demon House?
The alleged demon house is a nondescript rental cottage with enclosed porch at 3860 Carolina Street in Gary, the onetime “murder capital of the U.S.”Figure 1. At the Gary, Indiana, “200 demons” house, the later resident talked with Joe Nickell (out of view at right). Photo by Steve Duerr.
Although not reported publicly until January 28, 2014 (Kwiatkowski 2014a), the strange events began soon after Latoya Ammons moved into the house with her three children (then seven, nine, and twelve, respectively) and her mother, Rosa Campbell, in November 2011. Campbell recalled a profusion of flies that swarmed their porch in December; that motif recalls the Amityville horror house of the mid-1970s—a case that proved to be a hoax (Nickell 2012, 293).
Soon came noises that Ammons interpreted as footsteps on the basement stairs and the creaking of the basement door—consistent with the sounds old houses commonly make with changes in temperature (Nickell 2012, 111–112). In one incident, her mother reportedly awoke to see a “shadowy figure” and “leaped out of bed” to find “large, wet bootprints” (Kwiatkowski 2014a). However, the earlier report of a priest seeking permission to conduct an exorcism (Maginot 2012) stated that it was the next morning that “they saw on the wooden floor of their living room what looked like muddy footprints like from a boot.” Campbell probably had a common “waking dream,” which occurs between being fully awake and asleep (Nickell 2012, 353–354). As to footmarks that might have been made at any time, one does not need to invoke the supernatural to explain them.
Significantly, there were never any reported haunting or demonic activities in the house other than during the Ammons family’s tenure. The landlord, Charles Reed (2014), insists there had never been any such problems before they took up residence. While to the Department of Child Services (DCS) Ammons blamed her children’s irregular school attendance on the demons—saying “the spirits would make them sick, or they would be up all night without sleep”—in fact the family had a “previous DCS history regarding educational neglect” (Washington 2012). Records show the agency made that finding in 2009 (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
As well, as Charles Reed (2014) noted, there were no alleged demonic activities during the tenure of the subsequent renter. The only thing that was scaring the new tenant was local curiosity, notably that Gary police officers were frequently driving by the house, and Reed phoned the department to ask them to stop. Reed, who has thirty-three years’ experience as a landlord, told The Indianapolis Star: “I thought I heard it all. This was a new one to me. My belief system has a hard time jumping over that bridge.” I called to ask if anything had occurred since to change his view, and spoke with his wife Nancy Reed (2014). Although she stated that they were making no further comments about the case and had obtained an attorney, she did answer my question: She said her husband’s skepticism remained unchanged.
Although Mrs. Reed told me that the current tenant did not want to be disturbed—and that was obvious, given that woman’s having called police to report bothersome reporters and photographers—nevertheless I was on assignment for CSI and determined to take my best shot. Arriving at the residence (with Steve Duerr of CFI–Indiana, who took the photo in Figure 1), I saw the woman resident in the doorway and a male companion putting something in a car parked in front. I bailed out of Steve’s car and approached. I began by identifying myself and apologizing for the interruption. Although she continued her position of making no comments, she was not unpleasant to me and we actually spoke for ten to fifteen minutes.
When I said offhandedly that she no doubt knew of the alleged incidents better than I, she quickly replied, “Not really,” explaining that she had not followed the case and only wanted to live in peace. The gentleman interjected, pointedly calling the reputed demonic events there “hocus-pocus”—adding, “or whatever.” He informed me they were moving out. The house had been purchased—for $35,000—by Zak Bagans, the executive producer and host of the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures (Kwiatkowski 2014b).Poltergeists?
Soon after the Ammonses had moved into the house on Carolina Street, the ghostly goings-on transformed into a full-blown case of poltergeist activity—after the German word for “noisy spirit.” The oldest son told a child psychologist that “doors would slam and stuff started moving around.” The youngest son, according to Ammons “was once thrown from the bathroom when no one was even near him” (Kurp 2014). A religious statue was broken (Maginot 2012). Ms. Ammons told DCS that if the children were not asleep by eleven in the evening, “the spirits would come out and keep them up all night throwing things, moving things in the home,” and so on (Washington 2012).
Countless historical examples show that such disturbances typically center around a child or children and involve mischief a child could cause and, indeed, many times was actually caught causing. I call this activity the poltergeist-faking syndrome (Nickell 2012, 325–331). Motivation varies: In one newly tenanted home mysterious fires resulted when a boy missed his former playmates; a schoolhouse outbreak was inspired by the gullibility of their teacher and townsfolk; and other “poltergeist” antics were produced by an eleven-year-old girl looking for attention. All such motives could apply to the Ammons children.
First, the children’s move to a new neighborhood might have caused difficulty. Lacking new playmates, they may have begun to irritate each other, resulting in Ammons reporting to their physician “that the children fight one another and are abusive to one another and then they pass out” (Washington 2012). (In other words, they act out their anger but pretend not to be responsible.)
Second, the mother’s response to the occurrences encourages their misbehavior. Consider the DCS report giving information from a knowledgeable confidential informant—apparently a medical professional—who complained to the department. He is referred to as “RS” (for Report Source, cited in Washington 2012):
RS states [one of the boys] reported there are ghosts in the home, thousands of them and he can see them. . . . [T]hey don’t talk to him but after the mother tells [him] that he can tell the medical professionals the truth he later says yes. . . . RS states they believe the children are performing for the mother and that she’s encouraging the behavior.Mother Sets the Stage
Latoya Ammons is a religious believer who has a high superstition quotient. She believes in invisible entities and consults “clairvoyants,” one of whom told her “the house was infested by demons.” She insisted to Inside Edition, “I know that for a fact” (Ammons 2014). At the suggestion of one of two clairvoyants who claimed the house was “filled with more than 200 demons,” a frightened Ammons created an altar in the basement where the terrifying events were believed to have begun. It consisted of a statue of the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—and a white candle and incense burner (Maginot 2012). The Gary police observed “multiple religious shrines” and “bibles throughout the home” (Washington 2012).
She told medical personnel that her home had “various demons and evil spirits due to someone dying in the home,” and that she had “taken the children to various temples and churches to remove the demons.” One psychologist said of Ammons that she did not appear to be “experiencing symptoms of psychosis,” but another wondered “whether her religiosity may be masking underlying delusional ideations or perceptual disturbances” (qtd. in Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Several professionals concluded that the children were acting deceptively and in accordance with their mother’s beliefs. For example, a psychologist who evaluated the youngest son reported that he tended to “act possessed” whenever he was challenged or redirected, or when he was asked questions that he did not wish to answer. She went on to observe that the boy seemed both coherent and logical—except when he was talking about demons. Then, his stories became “bizarre, fragmented and illogical,” she said, adding that the stories changed every time he related them (Wright 2012).
The psychologist determined that the boy did not have an actual psychotic disorder, concluding, “This appears to be an unfortunate and sad case of a child who has been induced into a delusional system perpetuated by his mother and potentially reinforced,” she said, by other relatives (Wright 2012).
As a consequence of their evaluations, the DCS removed the children from Ammons. The agency stated that she needed to employ “alternate forms of discipline not directly related to religion and demon possession” (DCS Case Plan 2012). Ammons was permitted supervised visitation and, after about six months, the children were returned to her in November 2012. Meanwhile—outrageously—no fewer than four exorcisms were performed on her by a priest named Michael L. Maginot, one with his bishop’s official permission—though not on the children who were allegedly possessed! Ammons now says her children left their demons behind, but she credits God, not psychologists or the DCS, with resolving the family’s problems (Kwiatkowski 2014b).Demonic Phenomena
It remains to discuss the phenomena that so astonished other superstitions folk involved in the case—including the priest, his bishop, and one Captain
Charles Austin of the Gary police. Like Ammons, Austin has a high superstition quotient. Already an admitted believer in the supernatural, including
ghosts, he became a believer in demons after visiting the house on Carolina Street (Kwiatkowski 2014a). It didn’t take much: He and other officers naïvely
played ghost hunters. They used cameras and Austin’s iPhone
to snap pictures in which they could see—in mottled shadows and cloudy white forms (such as can be caused by a rebounding flash)—shapes that resembled faces and figures. These are called simulacra, the result of one’s ability to perceive images in random patterns (Nickell 2012, 64–65).
One such exterior photo, showing what looks vaguely like a blurry image of a person standing in a porch window, might have been a simulacrum, or a reflection of someone on the sidewalk, or a fake photo, as from a cell phone’s hoax app (Flynn 2014). Although The Indianapolis Star captioned it “Photo by Hammond Police,” it was not. The Hammond Police Chief assured me it was not an official police photo, that agency having had no involvement in the case, never mind what may have been produced unofficially by an individual (Miller 2014). At present, the photo is too questionable to be admissible as evidence.
Again influenced by television ghost shows, the officers used a tape recorder to supposedly record spirit sounds—or rather a sound, perceived as the word hey (Kwiatkowski 2014a). Such electronic voice phenomena (EVPs, as they are called in the parlance of ghost hunting) are typically verbal simulacra—that is, syllable-like effects perceived in the randomness of static and background noise (Nickell 2012, 146, 273). In this instance it appears to have been an inadvertent aspiration (it is not the word hey) made by a person close to the microphone at the time (Flynn 2014). Ghost hunting involving such equipment is a pseudoscientific pursuit and a fool’s errand. As to Captain Austin’s self-moving car seat, his mechanic found that his driver’s seat motor was simply broken (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Turning to the phenomena attributed to the children, these were obviously produced by the children themselves. Anyone who has seen any of the countless TV shows and movies that have proliferated since the 1973 horror movie The Exorcist would know how to manipulate his or her eyes, growl, speak in a deep voice, feign a trance, scream and thrash, or otherwise simulate being “possessed.” When the youngest Ammons boy was “lifted and thrown into the wall with nobody touching him” (Washington 2012), it is apparent he simply launched himself.
Similarly, when his sister “reported being thrown across the room and grabbed by dark shadows” (Washington 2012), she was no doubt self-propelled—if, given the word “reported,” the event happened at all. Much has been said about her having been “levitated” above a bed (Kwiatkowski 2014a)—part of the stock effects of alleged demon possession as shown in numerous movies. However, no levitation has ever been documented by science. The girl’s mother has given different versions of the feat, but when she mentioned the incident on Inside Edition (Ammons 2014), she did not use the word levitation. Rather, she stated that as she watched, “It [a demon] attacked [her daughter] and it raised her up off the bed, snatched her off the bed”—describing a quick action, not a prolonged floating. I take it that, as with the other incidents, the twelve-year-old simply propelled herself upward, no doubt taking advantage of the springiness of the mattress. (If she arched her body, supported at head and feet, she might have appeared to float briefly.)
The most significant claim involved the oldest son and described him—as sources endlessly repeated—“walking backward up a wall” in front of witnesses including a DCS case manager and a nurse. The incident happened at Lakewood Methodist Hospital, where I talked with a public relations official (Morrison 2014) but was not allowed to speak to the nurse; I also met the case manager Valerie Washington (2012), but her superiors also did not permit her to speak about the matter to me. Nevertheless, I can say that there was more to the incident than people learned from some sources—such as the New York Daily News (Golgowski 2014), which had the mother claiming demons caused her son “to walk on a hospital ceiling.”
The accounts tend to imply that gravity was overcome, proving a supernatural occurrence. In fact, while the boy put first one foot, then the other, onto the wall of a small hospital exam room, his grandmother, Rosa Campbell, was holding his hand (Washington 2012) or both of his hands (Ammons 2014). Thus the laws of physics were not contravened. The boy was obviously supported, braced by the rigid arms of Campbell who no doubt instinctively steadied him and helped him maintain his balance as he progressed, perhaps to the ceiling, “and he never let go. He flipped over and landed on his feet in front of the grandmother and sat down in the chair. A few minutes later he looked up as if he was back to himself” (Washington 2012). In short, this was a stunt of an agile boy, not in the least proof of the supernatural.
The priest (Maginot 2012) reported flickering lights, appearing oil, and a litany of other incidents, including some that he was only told about. For instance, a bottle “levitated” and wobbled before being thrown into Latoya Ammons’s bedroom, a common “poltergeist” act) where it broke a lamp. (Too bad the object was not dusted for fingerprints. I suspect Ammons misperceived, first seeing the bottle in mid-flight traveling approximately toward her—conditions like those that sometimes cause airplanes to be reported as “hovering” UFOs [Hendry 1979, 37–38]). Ammons took the family to her brother’s, “but the entity seemed to follow them there”—a fact that should surprise no one. Maginot’s report (2012) is rife with the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (‘we don’t know what caused this, so it must have been demons’).Continuing Saga
It was not enough that the Rev. Michael Maginot helped foster ignorance and superstition in the case, at the expense of science and reason, but he seemed happy to become a star—presumably with his bishop’s blessing (if that is the right word). Maginot contracted with Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures to produce a documentary on the case. He also signed a contract with Evergreen Media Holdings—whose chairman, Tony DeRosa-Grund, produced the horror movie The Conjuring (previously exposed in SI as nonsense [Nickell 2014]). Worldwide, that movie grossed $318 million. Apparently with a straight face, Maginot told a reporter the reason he signed with Evergreen was that he felt DeRosa-Grund would not sensationalize the case (Kwiatkowski 2014c)!
Another hopeful is Captain Charles Austin, whom I twice tried to reach on visits to the Gary police station. According to the Indianapolis Star, he “said he expected notoriety and figured a movie would come of this” (Kwiatkowski 2014b). He is right so far, but if he is not careful, his legacy may be that of one more person lampooned for being on a fool’s errand.
As to Ammons, she was apparently so eager to tell her story to The Indianapolis Star that she signed releases giving access to her family’s medical, psychological, and social records in otherwise restricted files. Stated the reporter (who made them available to researchers: see Kwiatkowski 2014a for urls), they were “not always flattering.”
In summary, no demons possessed anyone in this case, except in the figurative sense. What were really unleashed were the dark aspects of superstition, ancient dogma, lust for notoriety, the greed of cynical hucksters, and the stubborn unwillingness of some to be reasoned with.Acknowledgments
Barry Karr, CSI executive director, arranged for me to go to Gary, and CFI’s CEO Ronald Lindsay authorized the funding. CFI–Indiana’s Reba Wooden had requested my investigation, but I first spent several days in telephone and online research—assisted by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga. Subsequently, CFI volunteer Steve Duerr of Indianapolis accompanied me over three days of traveling and interviewing. Thanks are also due to Steve’s wife Sue and mother Shirley for comfortable accommodations, and I am grateful to Pat Beauchamp, Paul E. Loynes, and other staff members for help in various ways, especially Tom Flynn for technical audio-visual analysis.References
Ammons, Latoya. 2014. Interview on Inside Edition television program, “Homeowner Claims Her House Was Haunted by Demons,” January 30.
DCS Case Plan. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014a.
Flynn, Thomas (audio-visual expert). 2014. Consulted February 20–21.
Golgowski, Nina. 2014. Haunting in Indiana leads to family’s exorcism, child’s levitation: Reports. Online at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/haunting-indiana-home-leads-exorcism-levitation-report-article-1.1593169; January 27. Accessed Jan. 28, 2014.
Hendry, Allan. 1979. The UFO Handbook. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Kurp, Josh. 2014. Can you hear the “demon” voice that cops in Indiana are taking seriously? Online at http://www.uproxx.com/up/2014/01/can-hear-demon-voice-indiana-police-officers-taking-seriously/; January 28. Accessed January 30, 2014.
Kwiatkowski, Marisa. 2014a. The exorcisms of Latoya Ammons. Indianapolis Star (January 28).
———. 2014b. Alleged demon home sells for $35,000. Indianapolis Star (January 30).
———. 2014c. Priest signs film deals after well-publicized exorcisms. Indianapolis Star (February 6).
Maginot, Rev. Michael L. 2012. Report Seeking Permission of Bishop for Exorcism, submitted to Bishop Dale J. Melczek, May 21.
Miller, Brian (Hammond police chief). 2014. Return call to Joe Nickell, February 7.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2014. The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons? Skeptical Inquirer 37:2 (March/April), 22–25.
Morrison, Evelyn (Methodist Hospitals spokesperson). 2014. On-site interview by Joe Nickell, February 7.
Reed, Charles. 2014. Quoted in The Indianapolis Star (Kwiatkowski 2014a).
Reed, Nancy. 2014. Interview by Joe Nickell, February 5.
Washington, Valerie. 2012. Intake Officer’s Report of Preliminary Inquiry and Investigation, State of Indiana Department of Child Services, April 23.
Wright, Tracy. 2012. Cited in Kwiatkowski 2014.
Fear is a powerful emotion with clear protective functions. However, fear is not always adaptive. An emotion that evolved to protect our ancestors (chiefly from threats such as large predators) now is pressed into service in a complex technological civilization. The number of things we are told to be frightened of on a daily basis—by the news media, social and ecological activists, and others—is overwhelming.
Fortunately we have other tools to help us navigate the dangers we face, such as logic and evidence. These can help us put our fears into a proper perspective. These are all the more necessary, as the Internet has become a primary fear-spreading machine. Fearmongering memes are the new predators in our virtual environment, and they are always ready to pounce.
Information regarding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, for example, remains widespread on the Internet. It is certainly reasonable to consider whether or not radiation from the reactors pose any health risks, but what does the evidence tell us?A fishmonger checks large bluefin tuna before the first trading of the new year at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market in this January 5, 2012, file photo. Bluefin tuna caught off the U.S. coast have been found to contain radioactive material from Japan’s quake-struck Fukushima nuclear plant. Researchers said the elevated radioactivity posed no risk to public health as the observed levels were more than an order of magnitude lower than the Japanese safety limit and were lower than other naturally present isotopes. (AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNOYOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/GettyImages.)
On March 11, 2011, a tsunami hit northeast Japan. The flooding overwhelmed the safety measures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing several reactors to experience meltdown and resulting in the leaking of radioactive contaminated water into the local environment (Marshall 2013). This has resulted in restrictions on fishing in the vicinity of Fukushima. Recent evidence also indicates that radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean near Fukushima, although in amounts much smaller than the original leak resulting from the tsunami.
The question remained, however: How far did radioactive elements from Fukushima spread, and do they represent a health risk to anyone outside of the local vicinity? In 2012, researchers reported detecting radioactive elements (cesium-134 and cesium-137) that could clearly be traced to Fukushima in Pacific bluefin tuna (Madigan et al. 2012). These tuna spawn off the coast of Japan and migrate across the Pacific all the way to the California coast, where some are caught and eaten. These fish were able to carry radioactive contamination all the way from Fukushima to dinner plates in California. This created fear that contamination from Fukushima might have been far worse than the authorities were telling us, and perhaps could be affecting environments all over the world. This fear was also spread through conspiracy-theorist bloggers who claimed that the Japanese and American governments were engaging in a sinister collaboration to hide the truth from American fish consumers.
Toxicity, however, is all about dose, even with something as seemingly dangerous as radiation. A follow-up study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Fisher et al. 2013) found that the levels of radioactive contaminants found in Pacific bluefin tuna were negligible:
“The additional dose from Fukushima radionuclides to humans consuming tainted PBFT in the United States was calculated to be 0.9 and 4.7 µSv for average consumers and subsistence fishermen, respectively. Such doses are comparable to, or less than, the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources.” The advantage of communicating the relative risk of radiation exposure is that there is a certain background “natural” exposure that is unavoidable. When levels of exposure are less than this background, it is easy to make the point that any risk is insignificant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also reviewed the data concerning the radiation leaked, in all forms, from the Fukushima disaster. Most of the radiation was leaked in the week following the accident, but there have been continued leaks since then, mostly through ground water. The WHO review concluded: “A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the nuclear plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts. Outside these parts—even in locations inside Fukushima Prefecture—no observable increases in cancer incidence are expected” (World Health Organization 2013). An independent 2013 review also found little evidence of any significant radiation outside the immediate area of the accident: “It is important to note that all of the radiation levels detected outside of Japan have been very low and are well below any level of public and environmental hazard” (Thakur et al. 2013).
Recent estimates are that water contaminated with radioactive elements is leaking from Fukushima into the nearby ocean at a rate of 300 tons per day (Kimura and Kawada 2013). This sounds like a lot, but the Pacific Ocean contains 714 million cubic kilometers of water. Simple dilution is reducing the concentration of radioactive contaminants below the level where there is any health risk, to sea life or to those consuming seafood. There does remain concern for the immediate vicinity, of course. For this reason Japan has banned fishing along the coast near Fukushima.Conclusion
The Fukushima Daiichi disaster resulted in serious environmental contamination with radioactive contaminants. However, the contamination is mostly limited to the vicinity of Fukushima. Monitoring of contaminants in the Pacific, North America, and around the world reveal that they are at very low levels, below that which would cause any health concern or even peak above background radiation exposure. Even bluefin tuna spawning off the coast of Japan have negligible levels of contaminants and pose no risk to human health. This is all good news, but the environmental and health effects of Fukushima, which is an ongoing disaster, will need to be monitored for some time. There continue to be reports of new leaks from Fukushima, so this story is not yet over (Saito 2014). Hopefully, carefully collected evidence will dominate policy and public perception.References
Nicholas S. Fisher, Karine Beaugelin-Seiller, Thomas G. Hinton, et al. 2013. Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 18).
Kimura, Shunsuke, and Toshio Kawada. 2013. Fukushima: Radioactive water flowing into Pacific Ocean despite Japanese government claim. Global Research (October 11). Available at http://www.globalresearch.ca/fukushima-radioactive-water-flowing-into-pacific-ocean-despite-japanese-government-claim/5353898.
Daniel J. Madigan, Zofia Baumann, Nicholas S. Fisher. 2012. Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (April 25). Available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/05/22/1204859109.abstract.
Marshall, Michael. Fukushima leaks will keep fisheries closed. 2013. The New Scientist (August 6). Available at http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23998-fukushima-leaks-will-keep-fisheries-closed.html#.UwJKd2K-18E.
Saito, Mari. 2014. New highly radioactive leak at Japan’s Fukushima plant. Reuters (February 19). Available at http://news.yahoo.com/highly-radioactive-leak-japan-39-fukushima-plant-045324842--finance.html.
Thakur, P., S. Ballard, R. Nelson. 2013. An overview of Fukushima radionuclides measured in the northern hemisphere. Science of the Total Environment (Aug 1: 458–460; 577–613. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.03.105. Epub May 22, 2013.
World Health Organization. 2013. Global report on Fukushima nuclear accident details health risks. (February 28). Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2013/fukushima_report_20130228/en/.
Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution. By Edward Caudill. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield. 2013. ISBN 978-025-07952-8. 216 pp. Softcover, $25.00.
Why a new book reviewing the history of the creationist movement in the United States? Edward Caudill contends that his book Intelligently Designed: How Creationists Built the Campaign against Evolution distinctively emphasizes “the use of enduring cultural myths and the dexterous employment of mass media” (6) in explaining the success of the creationist movement, and he further proposes that the Scopes trial of 1925 established a template for the ensuing developments. Caudill’s publication record, which includes Darwinism in the Press: The Evolution of an Idea (1989), Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory (1997), and The Scopes Trial: A Photographic History (2000), certainly suggests that he is equipped for the task. But his latest book is something of a disappointment, both in providing a history of the creationist movement and in addressing the creationist use of myth and media.
As a history of the creationist movement, Intelligently Designed relates a familiar sequence of events, from the attempts to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s, through the attempts to balance the teaching of evolution with the Bible, creation science, or intelligent design from 1973 to 2005, to the ongoing attempts to portray evolution as controversial. Caudill is especially strong on the Scopes trial of 1925, devoting a chapter to comparing and contrasting the iconic figures of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, on the political mainstreaming of antievolutionism during the 1980s, and on the inward turn of young-Earth creationism to its own parallel culture in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the historical value of the book is compromised by errors and omissions. For example, Caudill consistently misspells the name of the lead plaintiff in McLean v. Arkansas, wrongly claims that the Arkansas law overturned in Epperson was enacted by the legislature (rather than by initiative), and mistakenly asserts that the Creation Research Society was involved in the publication of a book from the American Scientific Affiliation. While devoting a section to Alleged, a creationist film about the Scopes trial, he makes no mention of Expelled, a creationist film that, unlike Alleged, won a national theatrical release and significant publicity. While devoting a section to the antievolution effort in Kansas in 2005, which resulted in a transient defeat for evolution in the state standards, he makes no mention of the similar and historically continuous antievolution effort in Kansas in 1998.
When Caudill discusses creationist myths, he is not addressing the persistent misrepresentations and misconceptions that circulate in creationist circles, like the idea that Darwin recanted evolution on his deathbed or the idea that there are no transitional forms to be found in the fossil record. Rather, he is addressing social themes that reflect values and structure thought. Caudill identifies four myths with special resonance for the creationist movement: “the garden, the frontier, progress and science, individualism and egalitarianism” (11). But while it is plausible enough for him to observe, for example, that creationists like to portray themselves as rebels, mavericks, and underdogs, thus invoking the frontier myth, the observation is inert in the book. It is perhaps significant that these myths are explicitly discussed in only two passages in Intelligently Designed.
Caudill repeatedly pauses to summarize and assess the media’s coverage of the events he discusses. His assessments are generally judicious and frequently insightful. But there is no evidence that there is any underlying methodology. How was it decided which reports to assess? What criteria were used? What steps were taken to ensure that the criteria were applied consistently? Devising and executing a quantitative approach to assessing the media’s coverage would have been laborious, perhaps, but it would not have been otherwise difficult, and it would have enabled Caudill not only to provide a rigorous assessment of the reports but also to investigate questions that his impressionistic approach is ill-equipped to investigate. The same is true of his assessments of the effectiveness of creationist responses to mainstream expositions of evolution.
Caudill appeals to poll data, especially from Gallup, to justify his claim that creationists managed, by dint of their use of myth and media, to triumph in the public sphere. But his discussion is not sufficiently critical. He sometimes misconstrues the creationist response in Gallup’s polling as a young-Earth creationist response; he ignores the mixture of religious issues with scientific issues in Gallup’s questions; and he is apparently unaware of the fact, demonstrated by George Bishop and his colleagues, that adding “don’t know” and “not sure” as options reveals substantial ambivalence and uncertainty in public opinion about evolution that is otherwise invisible. Caudill is not wrong to think that creationism enjoys a degree of public acceptance incommensurate with its scientific credibility, but the details are not as straightforward as he seems to think.
Although the book is generally clearly written and organized, it contains distracting repetitions and ambiguities. For example, on p. 110, Caudill writes, “The national press fell prey to its own standards,” adding, in the next paragraph, “The press had fallen victim to its own practices and standards.” On p. 43, he misstates the date and provisions of a Tennessee law, and yet he correctly states them on p. 65. On p. 102, Rick Santorum is said to have “withdrawn affiliation with a Christian rights law center that defended the Dover schools policy”; in the next sentence, he is said “to have been on the advisory board of the Thomas More Law Center, which aided the defense in Dover.” The two organizations cited are, in fact, one and the same, but there is no clue for the untutored reader. Flaws like these should have been eliminated at the copyediting stage, if not sooner.
In a bibliographical portion of his book, Caudill reviews the major works on the history of the creationist movement, concluding, “Almost all of these books recognized, or at least alluded to, politics and various media in the history of creationism. None, however, dealt with creationism/intelligent design per se in the press, including the ways in which creationists appealed to the press and how creationists turned the attention into a movement ... There are no cultural histories of creationism as a politicized and mediated twentieth-century movement” (pp. 5–6). Although he succeeded in identifying a genuine lacuna in the literature, his attempt to fill it was, unfortunately, not so successful. Perhaps the greatest value of Intelligently Designed will be in its inspiring future scholars to continue the project of understanding the creationist use of myth and media.
An old book I discovered in an antique store—Maria Monk: Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed—seemed intriguing. Undated, it bears signs of being a cheap reproduction of an earlier volume (see Figure 1). Indeed, its title page not only gives a different title (Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk of the Hotel Dieu Convent of Montreal: The Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed), but revised publishing information (“Patriotic Defense League, P.O. Box 796, Chicago, Ill.”) has been added. (It is off-center, crooked, and in a different typeface.) The words “New Edition,” also appear (Monk n.d.).Figure 1. Maria Monk’s “Awful Disclosures” saw numerous printings and reprintings, such as this undated copy (probably from the first part of the twentieth century). (Author’s Collection)
In brief, the book purports to be the account of a young Canadian woman, Maria Monk (1816–1849), who had been a nun in a convent in Montreal in the 1830s. Purportedly, priests routinely entered the premises through a secret tunnel and forced themselves upon the defenseless young women. If they became impregnated, Monk claimed, the infant would, on delivery, be baptized, strangled, and dumped in a basement lime pit (Monk n.d., 130–31). Finding herself pregnant, Monk escaped, had her baby, and penned the tell-all tale—or so we are urged to believe.Imposture
I had not read far into the book before I found suspicious elements. For instance, the descriptions of Catholic practices seemed those an outsider would make. Monk seemed scarcely to know what an “Agnus Dei” was but described it as “something . . . we were required to regard with the highest degree of reverence” (n.d., 157).1 Moreover, the language is too elevated—often rhetorically verbose and pompous—for the “uneducated” female that Monk is described as in the preface (Monk n.d., xi).
My suspicions aroused, I turned to my late friend Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of Hoaxes (1993), where—under “Religious Hoaxes”—I found an entry on “Maria Monk.” It turns out that the fantastic assertions she made were investigated thoroughly at the time by Protestant clergymen who were permitted to inspect the actual convent, discovering that its interior was incompatible with Monk’s descriptions. Much additional debunking evidence followed.2 Nevertheless, the book saw many editions, and by the 1920s reportedly sold over 300,000 copies. Over four decades later, states Stein, it “was still going strong.” Copies like the one I found continue to lie in wait for unsuspecting readers.Double Imposture?
But surely Maria was not alone in the imposture. The text, as we have seen, was clearly not written by such an uneducated girl.
For example, “Maria Monk” wrote (n.d., 82):
The preservation of silence was insisted upon most rigidly, and penances of such a nature were imposed for breaking it, that it was a constant source of uneasiness with me, to know that I might infringe the rules in so many ways, and that inattention might at any moment subject me to something very unpleasant. During the periods of meditation, therefore, and those of lecture, work, and repose, I kept a strict guard upon myself, to escape penances, as well as to avoid sin; and the silence of the other nuns, convinced me that they were equally watchful, and from the same motives.
Now this excerpt yields a readability level (using a formula in Bovée and Thill 1989, 125–126) of seventeen school years—that is, the first year of graduate school (at least by today’s standards). Quite an achievement for an “uneducated” person! Of course, the text may simply have been ghostwritten. While the preface claims her tale was “carefully written down from her lips” (n.d., xiii), that is not only clearly untrue but a tacit admission that she was unable to actually write such a text herself (Stein 1993; Thompson 1934). So who actually wrote the “Awful Disclosures”?Will the Real Author . . .
Various persons connected to Maria Monk and her book have been proposed as the author. First, there was her companion and acting manager, Rev. William K. Hoyt, a Canadian Protestant minister, who was also rumored to be the real father of Monk’s child (Stein 1993, 226). Another minister involved, a Rev. John Jay Slocum, was her guardian for a time and, says Stein (1993, 226), also her “apparent lover.” Finally, a Theodore Dwight (a nephew of theologian Timothy Dwight, president of Yale), was identified as having taken “dictation” from Monk (Thompson 1934). Generally authoritative bibliographic records note that Maria Monk’s personal narrative has been ascribed either to Hoyle and Slocum—“as related to Theodore Dwight”—or to Dwight himself.3 Those sources, however, do not give evidence for preferring one suspect over another. I propose to do just that.
Actually, there is prima facie evidence to identify Dwight as the likeliest suspect. The pen—already in his hand in reportedly taking down Monk’s story—remains there as we come to recognize that the “dictation” was really at best ghostwriting, if not a complete fabrication.
As far as bibliographic records show, Hoyt was not the author of any substantial published work, while the readability level of Slocum (1837)—almost nine school years—is much lower than “Monk’s” and his style different.
On the other hand, Theodore Dwight (1796–1866)—a graduate of Yale in 1814—had published several books. In fact, one of them was an anti-Catholic work titled, Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries DANGEROUS to the Morals, and Degrading to the Character of a Republican Community (1836). It was published shortly after Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures, and indeed, it cites Monk’s claims at length, though without identifying his role in writing for her.
Here is a sample of Dwight’s text (1836, 6)—where he refers specifically to Monk’s book:
If this book is entitled to credit, no person who has any regard for female virtue or sound morals, can hesitate for a moment to say that these Catholic institutions demand, of every community where they exist, a strict inspection and oversight, so that such enormities as are charged against them should not be suffered to pass unnoticed and unpunished. Breaches of the wholesome laws of society ought not to be tolerated among Catholics any more than among Protestants. Nor does the idea of toleration extend so far as to justify the greatest outrages upon the morals of the public, or even to extenuate the perpetration of the most heinous crimes in the penal code.
Interestingly, like the Monk book itself; this exhibits a readability scale of twenty, slightly higher than “Monk” but compatible with it.
Moreover, certain similar grammatical errors are instructive. For example, “Monk” sometimes incorrectly uses a question mark to punctuate a sentence that is only indirectly an interrogative (e.g., “. . . I would ask . . . whether my duty has not been discharged?” [p. x]). Dwight does likewise (for instance, “It may be well . . . to inquire what would be the effect of . . . the general establishment of Catholic colleges . . .? [pp. 157–58]). Often, “Monk” uses a semicolon to separate, not just two independent clauses but, incorrectly, an independent and a dependent one (e.g., “She told me she must make some inquiries . . .; and proposed to me to take up my abode . . . at the house of a French family . . .” [p. 31]). Dwight also frequently does this (for example, “If there is any such person, he will of course encourage and support Catholic schools, seminaries, and convents; and will exert himself to the utmost to establish and multiply them . . .” [p. 160]). These and other similarities—indeed, an overall resemblance in style—add to the already strong circumstantial evidence for Dwight’s authorship.Conclusions
As the person who reportedly took down Maria Monk’s story, Dwight was not only the most capable of the three suspects of producing such a book but, indeed, he actually wrote an anti-Catholic tract on the same theme. And Dwight’s writing style is quite similar to that of “Monk.”
It seems clear that Theodore Dwight either ghostwrote the Monk book in his own words or made it up entirely on Monk’s behalf. It is possible that, coached by Hoyt, say, she fooled first Dwight and then others. (These included such notables as Samuel F.B. Morse, later famed inventor of the electric telegraph and the telegraphic code that bears his name [Morse 1836].)
Two points of evidence are against Dwight’s having been a deliberate hoaxer. First, his reputation seems otherwise intact. And second, in his own writing he goes to great pains to admit uncertainty regarding Monk’s story, using such phrases as “This work professes,” “If this book is entitled to credit” (repeated in variant forms), and the like (pp. 5, 6, 113, 148).
As to Maria Monk herself, a pro-church response to her claims had chronicled an early life of theft and prostitution (Awful 1836, 71–82). She died in 1849, imprisoned on New York City’s Welfare Island. Her arrest came after she had picked the pocket of a man with whom she had apparently engaged in sex for hire (Stein 1993, 226).Acknowledgements
CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga provided essential bibliographic and research information, and my former assistant, Ed Beck, helped in various other ways.Notes
1. Cf. Stravinskas 2002, 46.
2. A response to Monk was issued, giving a purely Roman Catholic view (Awful 1836).
3. I refer to OCLC (via WorldCat.org).References
Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. 1836. Reprinted New York: W.P. Mitchell & Sons, 1905.
Bovée, Courtland L., and John V. Thill. 1989. Business Communication Today, Second ed. New York: Random House.
Dwight, Theodore. 1836. Open Convents: Or Nunneries and Popish Seminaries DANGEROUS to the Morals, and Degrading the Character of a Republican Community. New York: Van Nostrand and Dwight. (Digitized by Google.)
Monk, Maria. N.d. Secrets of the Black Nunnery Revealed. Chicago: Patriotic Defense League. (Reprint of an earlier edition of a book first published in 1836.)
Morse, Samuel F.B. 1836. Testimonial for Dwight 1836; from New York City University, May 25.
Slocum, Rev. J.J. 1837. Further Disclosures by Maria Monk . . . preceded by a Reply to the Priest’s Book. New York: Published for Maria Monk.
Stein, Gordon. 1993. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 224–226.
Stravinskas, Peter M.J. 2002. Catholic Dictionary. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor.
Thompson, Ralph. 1934. The Maria Monk affair. The Colophon 17: 6, unpaginated.
Paranormal investigators playing the role of "experts" and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.
When it comes to Creationists, I'm actually fine when they say "God did it—that's what I believe." They don't have a scientific worldview, and that's their choice (I don't think it's a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don't know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. It's nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn't go over very well.
I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate's point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI's “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don't get to talk about every day.
As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. The majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.
The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I've been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn't do debates. (I actually don't wonder why not.)
So, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn't come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I'm interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group's "scientist." He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic... or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look "gee whiz" but was more like "Oh, Jeez..."
Up goes my hand: "Can you tell us about your scientific background?" He had a degree in Criminal Justice, no scientific experience but was a science enthusiast. He was wearing a white lab coat. This fellow was in way over his head, and it was painfully obvious. It’s an uncomfortable chore to listen to a presentation by a speaker who is billed as an expert but is woefully ill-equipped to talk about his subject. Don't EVER play pretend scientist in front of an audience that has actual scientists in it. You look incredibly foolish. The presentation had nothing to do with paranormal investigation and just as little to do with science.
The next evening was a presentation by another member of the same group. It was more of a paranormal history talk. I've seen these common talks done before, such as by Paranormal State's Ryan Buell who also got tripped up in the history. Once again, it was obvious that the presenter's knowledge in this area was too shallow. Perhaps it was impressive to someone who does not know that the people on Ghost Hunters weren't actually the world's first ghost hunters, but not to those who know that genuine scientists researched and tested paranormal claims in the early days of modern times. It was a muddled, incomplete, inaccurate romp through paranormal themes.
Up goes my hand: "I noticed in your historical timeline that you didn't mention the Society of Psychical Research and their important work. Why did you skip that?" (Paraphrased—I can't remember exactly what I asked but the key was to cite SPR, an institution still in existence today but not popular with the amateur, TV-trained ghost adventurers.) He was not familiar with SPR at all and skipped around the answer. Not discussing such a monumentally important time in the history of your field is more than a major oversight. It signals to me a lack of fundamental knowledge about it.
For someone who knows a bit about the rich, deep history of psychical research, it's painful to see the canyon-sized division between today's amateur paranormal investigators and the few academic parapsychologists or anomalistic psychology researchers. Knowledge of a topic hinges on extensive review of the literature so you understand what has been done before and what worked or did not work in the past. It's critical that you don't waste time and effort trampling over well-trampled (or well-mapped) ground again. It hardly matters how many investigations you have conducted. When you fail to recognize the key people of the past, know why they were important, and understand what they found, you are far from knowledgeable. There is no foundation, no platform from which to express your opinions and no justification to have them considered by scientists or by the informed public.
As with most paranormal investigation groups, this group had all good intentions (though the founder was into astrology and other sorts of woo). While they initially didn't seem to want anything to do with "skeptics" (yet they call themselves "skeptical"), it turns out they WERE interested in our perspective and actually were cool to chat with, open to learning and exploring new ideas. The second presenter was clear that it was "chic to be geek." He also stated that what they did was fairly labeled as "pseudoscience." That is the first time I've heard a group embrace that term, although I'm pretty sure we would not agree upon the definition. It does not mean unorganized, unaccepted science. It means false science.
We talked a bit after the presentation. The white lab coat guy wasn't there, but the other presenter was excited to find out that I was a geologist. We agreed there was much to discuss about the interaction between geology and paranormal ideas. Two weeks later he emailed me with a question about ley lines used in paranormal investigation, which propelled me into researching that topic from its origin. I'm learning quite a bit. I hope to produce a written piece on ley lines in the near future and I appreciate his introduction to the topic. Don't ever think we can't learn from the other side too.
Typical paranormal investigators don't read the skeptical literature much. I'd say they are missing a whole other half of the story by not doing that. If you are going to bill yourself as an expert, you need to know the arguments against your position. (Even the arguments against the skeptical position!) Enthusiasm is not an equivalent substitute for knowledge.
Do not fake your stated experience. It will confuse the audience. You may fool your clients but ultimately, you are fooling yourself. It’s borderline unethical for these groups to refer to themselves as scientists or anything that can be construed as scientifically based. ONLY TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU TRULY KNOW WELL and are formally trained to do. Paranormalists get pretty peeved at me for calling them out when playing pretend scientist. Scientists work long and hard for credentials. When you take a short cut and act the role in order to impress the public, I’m going to call BS.
Since July of 2012, Kenny Biddle has been releasing episodes of a video blog titled I Am Kenny Biddle. His videos, which range between six and fifty minutes, feature Mr. Biddle’s rants about such topics as paranormal fraud, ghost investigations, orbs, and the ways that people can be fooled.
Biddle’s no-nonsense attitude and well-reasoned arguments have earned him some respect from the skeptical community. He has graciously agreed to answer some questions for the benefit of Skeptical Briefs readers.
Gurmukh Mongia: I understand that you are very active in confronting alleged paranormal investigators. Would you like to talk a little about your experiences?
Kenny Biddle: Most “paranormal investigators” give themselves this title. There aren’t any required degrees or certifications, yet they magically become experts in various areas of study without ever actually studying. I got tired of seeing the same photography mistakes billed as proof positive or hearing people list credentials they don’t really have. So, I question . . . I question everything. I’ve found that a woman claiming to have a master’s in parapsychology and occult sciences (and who taught paranormal classes based on that credential) was not so forthcoming with the name of the college where she obtained the degree. After much persistence, I found that she got them from The Brotherhood of the Northern Light . . . one of many bogus store-fronts from one man running a “college” from his California ranch, which also served as the Command Center for his (space) alien resistance army (of two). She called the police trying to file a complaint on me for harassment. Another group attempted a hoax by using a phone app and placing a “ghost” within a photograph. Their problem: they used a well-known ghost image. I exposed them not only by posting all of the relevant information and images to their site, I also contacted the copyright owner of the image. Needless to say, chaos erupted around them. I devoted an entire video to that experience.
In most experiences, I focus on what’s being presented as photographic evidence. I have a good deal of experience in photography, and have little trouble explaining—and duplicating—the images being presented as ghosts. This usually causes anger on the part of the ghost hunters, since they “verified the authenticity” of the images. Interestingly, when I ask about their photography experience, they have none. I also have a pet peeve when it comes to groups claiming to be scientific, the majority of which have no clue what the term scientific method means. They are under the impression that possessing many gadgets that light up and beep, that have no known relevance to what they’re doing, puts them on the same level as actual scientists. So, I question, asking about the research that verifies their claims of what their gadgets do, asking why they skipped “hypothesis” and started at “theory,” asking what the hell EMF has to do with a ghost. These, along with the many other questions I put forth that go unanswered, are usually not tolerated for long. Anger is usually the response with the realization that they really don’t know as much as they thought they did.
GM: What was your inspiration for starting the videos? What makes your show different?
KB: The idea actually came from a coworker. After attending a paranormal event or giving a lecture, I’d always tell him about the debates I would have, going into great detail and apparently doing so in an excited manner. My coworker would laugh at the way I’d relate the experience, and kept telling me that I should do videos. He kept saying that my intensity and blunt attitude would be entertaining, while getting the information out there as well. So, I gave it a shot.
I guess the difference is that I’m just being me—no fancy editing, no dramatic music or acting. I’m just expressing exactly how I feel, and not sugarcoating my words. Something I’ve seen countless times in the paranormal community is people talking one way in front of others, then another way as soon as backs are turned. I can’t stand that. If I see bullshit, that’s how I call it—then I explain why. Yeah, I curse a lot . . . but that’s the real me when I’m frustrated.
GM: Do you have one or two favorite or most memorable shows? What are they and why?
KB: My favorite episode was about the Selma Mansion in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Instead of doing what’s been called a “rant,” I focused on claims made by a semi-famous paranormal team. It was the first time I ventured out of my office for a video to address specific paranormal claims at a location. With the research I did on the site, and some detective work into the claims, I was able to deliver an informative video that provided natural causes for phenomena that were being presented as positive proof of paranormal activity. The video was well received, showing how critical thinking was able to solve ghostly mysteries better than TV-inspired ghost hunting.
My next favorite would have to be “The Pepper’s Ghost Effect,” which went into the history of how the effect was developed, as well as demonstrated how easy it is to recreate in any home. In fact, I recreated a ghost video that was getting a lot of attention on YouTube, which was the inspiration for making the episode. I got a lot of feedback from that episode; it opened people’s eyes to a simple effect they had never known of.
GM: You seem to be channeling a lot of anger and frustration into your videos. Do you see them as a form of catharsis?
KB: Hell yeah! It’s terribly frustrating to continually speak with many people that will easily accept ideas at face-value—despite all the information, logic, and demonstrations you can provide to the contrary. Equally frustrating is listening to speakers, at conferences and seminars, teaching false information and/or their opinions as fact. What’s even worse than both of those: the ones that deliberately hoax for personal gain or fame. To put it bluntly . . . yeah, I get pissed off. The videos (and Facebook page of the same name) are my way of venting my frustrations within the paranormal community and to point out mistakes, misidentification, issues with methodology and procedures, bad evidence, useless equipment and so on. Most people who watch the videos share my feelings, and I’m often told “Thank you! You say exactly what I want to say but are afraid to.” For all the people that cause my frustrations, there’s just as many that share them.
Kenny Biddle’s videos are released around once a month on average, and they can be found on YouTube under the username parainvestigator (http://www.youtube.com/user/parainvestigator/). He also posts to Facebook under the username “I Am Kenny Biddle” (https://www.facebook.com/IAmKennyBiddle).
Following the current flare up of the Israel/Palestine conflict, a meme has been circulating around the Internet. In it, Laurence Fishburne, as the character Morpheus in The Matrix, is sitting in a comfy chair calmly explaining the hidden nature of reality to Neo:
“What if I told you that Israelis have no historic or genetic connection to Palestine but in fact originate from the Caucasus and a people called the Khazars?”
In the corner of the image is web address: davidicke.com.
The question here is about the origin of Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, who comprise around three-quarters of the global Jewish population, a large percentage of American Jewry, and about half of the Jews in modern Israel. The meme is expressing an idea that is the end result of a long evolution which is partly rooted in the British colonial rule of Palestine in the late 19th century. The argument in Britain went something like this: “The Holy Land plays an important part in the final days and the return of Christ. The British Empire currently—and likely will for a long time—governs the Holy Land. Therefore, we British are preordained to play some important role in the Second Coming. We knew we were special.”
This in turn led to a movement called British-Israelism, the idea that the British are in fact genetically tied to the Jews of the Old Testament, essentially one of the lost tribes. The belief, when it hopped the pond to the Americas, became the ideological progenitor of the Christian Identity movement, which posits that God’s chosen people are really white American Christians.
Hence, the idea that there are false Jews.
The earliest incarnation of the idea that the Ashkenazi Jews descended from Khazars in the Black Sea region appears in 1883 in a lecture given by French scholar Ernest Renan. Michael Barkun traces the subsequent development of this idea in his Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement, an excellent and detailed book.
In the US, the idea can be traced back through a Klan leader in the 1920s, Reuben H. Sawyer, who popularized the idea that the “authentic Jews” were Sephardic Jews (those from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa) and who decried Ashkenazi Jews as imposters who were hell-bent on destroying Christendom. In the later ‘20s, the popular racial theorist Lothrop Stoddard opined that ancient Hittite sculpture looked really sort of Jewish (Barkun 127), ushering in the idea of a tainted bloodline.
In the 1940s, this idea metastasized in a religious tract called, When? When Gog Attacks, which was authored by an obscure group called the Anglo-Saxon Christian World Movement. Barkun notes this tract formulated some notions that would reappear in Christian Identity-style anti-Semitism, including: “Cain as the founder of the ‘synagogue of Satan’; the ‘Turko-Mongol’ origin of Ashkenazi Jews; the blood of fallen angels among Jews; and the historicity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As the pamphlet’s author concludes, ‘The Ashkenazim are neither Jews nor Semitic by blood or race’” (51). (Indeed, in the extreme form of this belief in modern Christian Identity, the root of Jewishness can be found in the union of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which will become an important point when we consider David Icke.)
The idea that the Ashkenazi bloodlines come from Asia (and the corollary notion that Eastern European Jews were mostly converts) denied them any historical claim to the Holy Land, and this became very important after the Second World War, which saw the dawn of the Cold War and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Eastern European Jews had long been scapegoated as being responsible for the rise of communism, and Zionism was seen as the mechanism by which Jews would ascend to global hegemony.
The racist right in the US could look confidently at the establishment of Israel and its subsequent population with Jews from Eastern Europe as justifying both Cold War fears and religious paranoia. Denying the population of Israel both genetic and historical claims to Palestine was a method of resisting the commie-globalist Jewish cabal.
Is there any truth to the idea that the Ashkenazi Jews are Khazar? The genetic history of the Jews is complicated (Elhiak, Costa). The Jewish people are diasporic, widespread throughout the Mediterranean for at least 2000 years. The global migration of Jewry has been the subject of much historical research, and genetics promises to add additional context to that history. In fact, modern genetics have already shed some light on the ancestry of the Ashkenazi. According to geneticist Harry Ostrer, the Ashkenazi are genetically more similar to Sephardic Jews of the Mediterranean than they are to their geographic neighbors, who would presumably share the most genes with the historical Khazars (Yandel).
There are some surprises in the Ashkenazi genome, for instance that mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited exclusively through the maternal line, shows that half of Ashkenazi Jews share DNA from just four women. There has been much debate about where those women came from, and the evidence suggests they were European women from the north Mediterranean. While the size of the European contribution to the Ashkenazi genome is the subject of ongoing research, geneticists seem to agree that the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews are genetically linked and that they share those genetic markers with Jewish populations from the Middle East (Fischman).
And with Palestinians.
So, why is David Icke circulating the Matrix meme? David Icke is a retired British footballer, sports broadcaster, and Green Party spokesperson who has embarked on a fourth career as a New Age guru who claims that the world is controlled by capitalist reptilian bloodlines.
Icke has adopted a version of the Matrix meme, that the world is decidedly not as it seems, but is a false image projected into our minds from the hollow moon, which is also a spaceship. So, the imagery appeals to him. Secondly, it’s often really hard to distinguish the things that Icke says about the lizard people and the things that run of the mill anti-Semites say about the Jewish New World Order, and I think that the far racist right hears a dog whistle when he says “reptilian,” which they interpret as “Jews.” It probably confuses things further that the American Christian Identity movement actually thinks that the people they believe are imposter Jews are descended from the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Furthermore, Icke has never exactly done much to dissuade people who have made their minds up that he is an anti-Semite. He does, however, seem to think that the Jews as a group are controlled by outside alien entities, as are Muslims, the Council on Foreign Relations, the UN, the Freemasons, and all other social institutions. In Icke’s schema, everyone is a pawn, including the Jews.
The scheming that he believes puts Khazars in Israel is not necessarily that of the Jews themselves, which… maybe?... makes it less racist? Maybe?Works Cited
Barkun, Michael. Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement. University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Print.
Costa, M.D. et al. 2013. “A Substantial Prehistoric European Ancestry Amongst Ashkenazi Maternal Lineages.” Nature Communications. 4:2543 doi: 10.1038/ncomms3543.
Elhaik, Eran. 2012. "The Missing Link of Jewish European Ancestry: Contrasting the Rhineland and the Khazarian Hypothesis." Genome Biology and Evolution 5: 61-74.
Fischman, Josh. 2012. "The Chosen Genes." The Chronicle of Higher Education. Online at: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Chosen-Genes/131481/
Yandell, Kate. 2013. "Genetic Roots of the Ashkenazi Jews." The Scientist. Online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/37821/title/Genetic-Roots-of-the-Ashkenazi-Jews/
On the last day of May, a bevy of west-coast skeptics gathered to discuss scammers, science, psychology, and public awareness above the hurry and fuss of Chinatown in Oakland, California.
The day opened with a call to make science an understandable and accessible public matter for even the least among us—politicians. Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, illuminated the shocking condition of scientific literacy of political leaders, media, and the public.
During the 2008 election, candidates for president in the United States were asked over 3,000 questions in interviews. Of those 3,000 only six were about climate change. In 2012, the networks other than MSNBC spent fifty-one minutes on climate change but over one and one-half hours on Joe Biden’s smile.
The media’s coverage is probably only a symptom of the overall scientific illiteracy in our society. When the public was asked in a survey to name the top three scientists, they answered Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates. Only 74 percent could answer that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.
The scientific ignorance of the American population is also caused by the rift between scientists and the public. Most Americans do not personally know a scientist. Deep understanding of what it means to be a scientist does not really exist outside of academia. The unbridged rift, possibly created on both sides, has made scientific inquiry a low priority for American political leaders.
According to Kirshenbaum, a scientist and former political staffer during the Kennedy Administration, research and development was then 12 percent of the budget and now it is only 3.4 percent.
Kirshenbaum made specific suggestions to improve communication between the public and scientists.
- Explain to the public what scientists in different fields actually do to learn about their chosen subject (diving for sponges, climbing hills to find rocks, study zebra fish, etc.).
- Encourage scientists to adapt to new media in order to communicate their findings as well as publish in journals. Journals are not accessible to the public; the information is behind pay walls. By putting the information in a publically digestible form, the public as well as the scientific community would have access to the knowledge and can make informed decisions based on it.
- When interacting with the public, scientists need to know and understand their audience and tailor their interactions to that audience.
- Scientists should avoid lingo and language that only scientists use; instead they should use common language to speak to non-scientific communities.
- Choose culturally relevant references.
- Do not try to explain everything.
- Be succinct.
Patrick O’Reilley moved the discussion from the realm of valid inquiry into the land of exploitation. In his talk, “Cons, Scams, and Undue Influence,” he discussed the vulnerabilities confidence artists cultivate and exploit to get money or influence.
Criminals use gullibility, distraction, lying, fear of looking foolish, group pressure, creating personas similar to the targeted victims, social proofs, magical thinking, cognitive dissonance, the pressure of reciprocity, diminished personal control, deference to authority, focusing on the positives, and methods of self protection in order to influence the behavior of their marks.
O’Reilley’s talk did not discuss the implications beyond the world of crime, but it lent insight into the pressures that make victims in other areas important to skeptics. The same pressures are used by more than just people selling bridges that do not exist; they are used by psychics, water diviners, and vaccine deniers to influence decision-making and rationalizations.
“A Discernible Human Influence on Global Climate Change,” a talk by climate scientist Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, widened the discussion from people’s influence on each other to their influence on the planet and some people’s hostility to the idea.
Dr. Santer was the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I Report addressing the causes of global climate change. The chapter suggested global climate change may be influenced by humans. In response to the mere suggestion of human influence in the change of the climate, he faced a range of harassment and personal attacks.
Santer showed the evidence for climate change and explained how scientists came to their conclusions. He also discussed and refuted some typical climate change denier tropes. The well-informed skeptic probably was only reinforcing their existing knowledge but hearing an expert clearly explain the evidence in a new way always gives new tools for discussion.
The program left the global perspective and entered the celestial with Andrew Fraknoi’s talk, “An Astronomer Looks at Astrology.” Some of the humorous facts shared by Fraknoi were:
- the Earth’s wobble has moved the zodiac ahead one sign since its invention but the charts don’t compensate for this.
- incompatible zodiac signs do not divorce more often.
- compatible signs do not marry more often.
- Nancy Regan had an official White House astrologer who is rumored to have had influence over President Regan’s schedule.
Fraknoi suggested a new, more reasonable birthday and celestial body connected personality destiny gauge—Jetology. Jetology is a description of the personality types set where jumbo jets were in the sky when a person was born.
Other equally reasonable personality and psychological theories were described in Sheldon Helm’s talk, “Fringe Psychology.”
Helm explained the psychological treatment therapies:
- EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing in which a therapist waves a wand in front of the patient in a rhythmic fashion to guide the patient’s eyes back and forth, thus making feelings easier to process.
- Thought Field Therapy—the realignment of the disorganized magnetic field on the outside of a person’s body, which occurs as a result of trauma.
- Alcoholics Anonymous—the treatment program for alcoholics struggling with recovery ripped off the five C’s from the Oxford group: confidence, confession, conviction, conversion, and continuance. AA works best when people believe the spiritual aspect but has poor outcomes even then.
Helm also offered a criticism of the Stanford Prison Experiment; primarily that there was no control group and some of the guards may have been instructed to be sadistic.
Dr. Paul Doherty explained the edge of good science and when to admit we simply do not yet know in his talk on the “Boundaries of Science.”
Norm Goldblat rounded out the day with scientific comedy.
The best lesson of the day came from a participant. Throughout the day the audience member sat in the front row and interrupted the speakers to make unnecessary, pedantic corrections when the speaker used relaxed language because the speaker realized they were in company that could understand the context without repeated explanation or hyper-precise language. He butted in during jokes, killing the punch lines and corrected experts in truly trivial matters any reasonable audience members understood as linguistic short hand.
Public speaking did not come naturally to one of the speakers. The speaker was appropriately sharing a story to make a point more salient. In one particularly flabbergasting moment, the front row blurter decided to interrupt the speaker, during the story. The speaker was embarrassed and flustered.
Skeptics have been accused of being a smug bunch of know-it-alls, more interested in putting people down with intellect than actually discussing the topic at hand. While the interrupting audience member certainly is not representative of all skeptics or even the vast majority of us, his behavior did bring up something important—being a rude, obnoxious jerk simply to bolster one’s own ego does not further debate or discussion, and it is not an expression of superiority. It is just a reason to turn a deaf ear to skeptics in the future.
SkeptiCal 2014 delivered a pile of tools for skeptics to choose from the next time they engage a climate change denier, a scammer, or simply want to check themselves.
50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True. By Guy Harrison. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2011. ISBN: 978-1616144951. 458 pp. Paperback, $18.
Many people entertain beliefs without question. These are beliefs handed down to them as traditions or doctrines purportedly revealed by God. They think these beliefs are true and are not ready to subject them to critical evaluation. In many societies, people lack the will to doubt or to raise objections to popular claims and notions partly because they think popularity implies veracity or that beliefs held by the majority invests validity in claims. Hence many popular misconceptions exist and persist. They continue to mar people’s lives in ways they do not realize and even if they do realize it, they find it difficult to acknowledge or accept. In his magnificent book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True, Guy Harrison, an award-winning journalist, draws attention to these popular misconceptions and their dark and destructive influence on the lives of individuals and the society at large. In a very simple, thoughtful, easy-to-read and entertaining style, the author exposes the faulty logic underlying these beliefs.
Harrison doesn’t use a condescending approach, something skeptics are often accused of using in addressing irrational believers and in challenging and debunking paranormal claims. Instead Harrison humbly acknowledges the cultural universality of unreason: “We all believe silly things, what matters is how silly and how many.” He makes his objective clear: “I want readers to know my motivations for writing this book. I’m not scolding, lecturing, or preaching to make myself feel important. I am only trying to encourage and inspire critical thinking and spread the word that skepticism is important.” The author is not interested in telling people what to believe or not believe as such: “Truth is, I really couldn’t care less about what someone believes. It’s only when I see unproven beliefs diminishing someone’s life or causing harm to others that I feel obligated to speak up and offer a helping hand,” he asserts. Harrison has, in this book, offered a helping hand through a poignant analysis of these popular beliefs and how they are employed by charlatans to exploit and dupe gullible folks.
So, are you one of those who think belief in the paranormal and supernatural, near-death experiences, miracles, and reincarnation are true? Then, you need to pick up a copy of this book. Or if you are one of those who patronize psychics, faith healers, or alternative and homoeopathic “medical” practitioners, before your next visit, please go through some of the chapters.
You may be one of those who think, “You’re Either Born Smart or You’re Not,” or that “The Bible Code Reveals the Future,” or “UFOs Are Visitors from Other Worlds,” or perhaps “Angels Watch Over Me,” or even “I Am Going to Heaven When I Die.” If so, the author says you should think again. Harrison makes a case for skepticism, not for its own sake but for the sake of humanity. He advocates a form of caring and constructive skepticism. The author describes promoting skeptical rationality as a moral duty. “The way I see it, promoting reason and skepticism is a moral issue. It’s about caring for your fellow humans.” This unique sense of rational care runs through its pages.
This book is a must-read for skeptics and non-skeptics alike. It will excite all critical thinkers and will get believers to reexamine many popular beliefs that they think are true. I recommend it to all who are concerned and deeply worried about the “gigantic cloud of danger” looming large over our world today due to popular dogmatic and irrational beliefs.
I enjoy researching paranormal topics, but I have to admit that while I enjoy online research, there is nothing like digging through a pile of old papers at an archive. Some researchers go into an archive with a specific goal in mind, looking for the letter or paper that supports or disproves a hunch they have. However, I like a bit of serendipity. I consider an archive like a dark, still pool. I like to give it a stir and see what pops up to the surface.
One of my favorite places to excavate is the Milne Special Collections at the University of New Hampshire Library in Durham. The librarians at UNH assure me that the Barney and Betty Hill archive housed there is quite popular, where new discoveries can still be made. The Hills, as many skeptics know, spawned the “alien abduction” craze, and their experiences set the template for many later reports.
One surprise I had was finding the fragile paper on which Barney Hill drew his conception of the UFO that he claimed abducted him in 1961. Resting unassumingly in a file, his simple drawing with his signature in the corner with the date, makes this paper one of the most important documents in paranormal history, and UFO lore/UFOlogy in particular. I found myself almost trembling when I had a chance to hold and photograph it.
My favorite surprise of the Hill Archive though, has to be the epic “Cosmos“ letters. This rather quirky bit of UFO history has a fascinating cast:
Betty Hill—Well known UFO personality, who claimed to have been abducted with husband Barney in 1961 while travelling in New Hampshire. Betty and Barney Hill were a biracial couple (quite unusual at the time), and their story was made into a book and TV movie.
John Fuller—Author of many books with paranormal themes. Wrote The Interrupted Journey about the abduction claim of Betty and Barney Hill. Not a fan of Carl Sagan.
James Earl Jones—The voice of Darth Vader and CNN’s catchphrase, but also owner of the rights to The Interrupted Journey. Starred as Barney Hill in a TV movie based on the book.
Stan Ferguson—Friend of Betty Hill. Also not a Sagan fan.
Carl Sagan—Host and creator of Cosmos, the most viewed PBS series in the world, and a world-famous astronomer, who was known to be open minded about the possibility of alien life and occasionally referred to himself as “Dr. Sagan.”
KCET—PBS station that produced Cosmos.
William Lamb—Senior Vice President at KCET Television.
Brenda Young—Attorney for Community Television for Southern California.
Cosmos—Episode 12 features a short reenactment of the Hill’s claimed abduction.
So follow along on the paper trail of the Cosmos incident.
The first hint I had was a handwritten letter to Betty Hill from her friend Stan Ferguson I just happened upon in the files. “I didn’t realize that C. Sagan had made so many errors until playing the tape back. The UFO Incident was more factual. One would think that a documentary like Cosmos would be more factual than a Hollywood dramatization. I’m surprised that Sagan didn’t have you black and Barney white!”
It took me a moment to realize the letter was talking about Carl Sagan and Cosmos. What had Sagan got so wrong, and why was Betty’s friend so upset about it?
I had only heard praise for the show, but the more I dug in the archive, the more negative comments I read about Sagan. Since he was known as a believer in life on other planets, and was an early supporter of SETI, I was surprised at all the anger. Fuller strikes first, in a letter to ICM (International Creative Management). This is a talent agency. In a reply to an inquiry by Fuller, Roberta Pryor responds (dated 1/6/81): “On the PBS-Carl Sagan/Cosmos business it seems to me the easiest way would be to call up PBS and if you can’t do it perhaps James Earl Jones’ lawyer Stanley Rothenburg would like to do it. If it is indeed a violation it seems to me that James Earl Jones, since he acquired the exclusive rights, would be the one who is jumping up and down.” At this point I am picturing James Earl Jones jumping up and down. But it seems Fuller, author of The Interrupted Journey, which Jones owns the rights to, is the one doing all the jumping.
Next comes quite a lot of confusion, as Fuller has dated a letter incorrectly. It took me a few hours until I figured this out. In a letter dated January 10, 1982 (should be 1981) to KCET’s William Lamb Senior VP “Mr. Carl Sagan’s shoddy and unscientific appraisal of the UFO subject is one thing. But his dramatization of a portion of my book The Interrupted Journey without permission is another. It is a further infringement of the motion picture rights of the book, which have been granted to James Earl Jone’s [sic] who appeared in the NBC-World Premier of the motion picture of the same literary work.”
So it appears Fuller is angry that the producers of Cosmos used the Hills’ story without his permission. Still, James Earl Jones now owns the rights, but that doesn’t stop Fuller from his quest for justice. The letter continues, “I am frankly surprised and disappointed that a public supported organization like yours would present such a one sided picture of a subject that is being studied by many scientists who are open-minded, and who find Mr. Sagan’s prejudiced and close-minded appraisal of the subject to violate every tenant of the scientific method.”
A letter dated 2/4/81 from William Lamb to Fuller helped considerably with the time line confusion: “In response to your letter to me dated January 10, 1982 (sic) regarding the above referenced program, I must inform you that at no time did Dr. Sagan dramatize a portion of your book ‘The Interrupted Journey.’”
So, dates of letter problem solved. Fuller used the wrong year. Also please note that in these letters Sagan is always referred to as “Mr. Sagan” by Fuller and “Dr. Sagan“ by PBS.
The letter from Lamb to Fuller continues, “The Betty and Barney Hill incident is well known, particularly among UFO enthusiasts, and has been covered in newspaper and magazine reports. There would have been no need to infringe upon your rights or upon the rights of James Earl Jones. If we were dealing with fictitious characters created by you, then I could understand your concern. However we are dealing with real people who told and retold their story of an encounter with alien beings.”
There was a paradoxical aspect to the letter: If the story were fiction, Fuller would have a case. He would have to admit it was all made up to make any money off of this. Of course, Betty and Barney Hill fully believed they had been abducted by aliens, this was nonfiction to them. How Fuller felt about aliens, being that he had a financial interest in aliens and other paranormal creatures being real, we may never fully know. (This is equivalent to the case of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, who wrote The Holy Blood, The Holy Grail. Baigent and Leigh sued Dan Brown for copyright infringement. However, the judge ruled that since their book was presented as fact, not fiction, they did not have a case.)
The next letter is correctly dated 3/21/81. Fuller again writes to PBS: “I have just returned from England to receive your letter. I have to remind you and Mr. Sagan (I know of no PhD who refers to himself as ‘Dr.,’ including three Nobel Laureates whom I have met personally), that the personal story of Betty and Barney Hill is fully copyrighted, both in literary and film areas, and that any magazine or newspaper articles referring to the above either referenced to the book itself or reported opinions of the copyrighted story. At no point whatever did they dramatize even a portion of the material.”
The letter continues at the end to include this bit, where Betty Hill enters the story. Fuller claims Betty Hill is also not happy. What she seems to be not happy about is the depiction of her story in episode 12 of Cosmos “Since she is taking separate legal action on this phase of the case, I will refrain from commenting on that other than any distortions in that area are clearly a matter of litigation in addition to the copyright aspect.”
So how did Betty Hill feel? A letter Betty sent to Fuller is in the files, with commentary written by Fuller in a dark black pen. It’s a confusing letter to read, with circled words and Fullers thoughts injected here and there.
Dated 3/24/81, Betty’s letter to Fuller, with his commentary, holds a lot to wake up a sleepy researcher in a quiet library. “Thanks for the copies of the letters. Now, as for copywrite they showed a copy of my star map, which is copywrited. However they did use it on the program.”
Fuller has struck out and written “copyright,” but let the second misspelling pass. (I was pleased to see Betty makes the same spelling errors I do.)
At this point in the letter Fuller has written “NO!! The bastards! I talked with a couple of lawyers who felt that I really did not have much to complain about. They said I would need to show evidence that the presentation was harmful to me, financially, such as lectures which may have been scheduled, being cancelled out, this has not happened.” Betty Hill had a very busy career as a “UFO expert,” and my own feeling is that the Cosmos publicity would have increased her popularity as a speaker. She continues with her complaints about the depiction of her story on the show: “However, in the dramatization which was shown, the experience was false from what actually happened. Nothing was right—it was raining, we saw a light in the woods, and got out and staggered towards this. A Saganized fantasy, but using our names. Nothing was obtained from magazine, newspaper or other public materials. Mr. William J Lamb is an outright liar, in my opinion.”
I enjoyed the “Saganized fantasy“ comment, but I also felt sorry for Betty Hill. Ever since her experience, her story has been the source of endless study interest. It had to be very frustrating for her to be defending her story. She also lectured and granted interviews about her story and her subsequent UFO sightings. She was not seeking privacy when it came to UFOs. But the Sagan episode must have been a letdown, as I wonder if she possibly felt Sagan might give a positive depiction of her UFO experience. Betty Hill fully believed her UFO abduction was real.
A letter dated 6/11/81 has KCET’s Brenda Young responding: “Mr. Lamb has left KCET for a new position, and in his absence, I have been asked to respond to your letter to him dated March 21.1981. . . . Our records do not support your contention that all articles available to us either referred to your book or to opinions of the copyrighted story. However, we will be very interested in reviewing any documentation you may have supporting your claim of copyright infringement.”
The threatened lawsuits seem never to have happened. I asked a friend who works as a law clerk to look up any cases in California involving John Fuller, James Earl Jones, or Betty Hill. There was no mention of any lawsuit involving any of those people against Carl Sagan or PBS.
Most scientists consider life in the universe probable, though not yet confirmed. Aliens flying to Earth and abducting people is considered to be lacking in evidence. There exists a lot of eyewitness testimony from people like Betty Hill who fully believe aliens visit Earth. But, science demands more than eyewitness testimony. Scientific proof is still as elusive today as when Carl Sagan and KCET produced the first episode of Cosmos.
Still, the possibility of a lawsuit between Betty Hill, John Fuller, and James Earl Jones against PBS and Sagan makes me wonder how it would have turned out. Aliens on trial? Or copyright infringement? No matter what the outcome it would have been interesting. I look forward to watching the new updated Cosmos with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Or as John Fuller might like me to say, “Mr. Neil de Grasse Tyson.”
When are you going to do oil pulling?!
For about two months, that’s what every other email in my inbox asked, each one more impatient than the last. By not trying the new tooth care regimen, which was making its rounds on the internet, I was obviously failing in my commitment to make myself a human guinea pig for funky claims and health fads. Fun fact: Guinea pigs actually aren’t among the most common animals used in experiments. Rats, mice, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates make up 90% of animals used in laboratories, but “human bird” just doesn’t sound the same.
This oil pulling trend is having its fifteen minutes of fame all over the Web, especially on social media.
“Transform your health!” one ad read.
“Prevent bad breath!”
“Stop dry mouth!”
“Heal jaw soreness!”
“Get whiter teeth!”
“Get healthier gums!”
“Stop looking like a disgusting ogre with thumbs for teeth!”
All I had to do to perfect my pearly whites was swish a tablespoon of oil (sunflower or sesame is preferred) around my mouth for twenty minutes a day, pulling toxins out of my teeth and gums and “improving my overall oral health.” I decided to go for it: for thirty days, I would oil pull every day.
This method of oral torture has its origins in Ayurveda, an ancient healing system from India’s Vedic tradition. While Ayurveda dates back more than 5,000 years, oil pulling’s actual genesis is uncertain. It appears to have become popular in 1992 after a Russian doctor named Fedor Karach advocated the practice, thereby catching the attention of Lt. Col. Tummala Koteswara Rao, an Indian Ayurvedic practitioner. Whether the practice itself is ancient is unclear.
It was the perfect thing for me to try out. Although I take good care of my mouth now, as a child I routinely went to bed without brushing my teeth, telling my mom I had already done it while she wasn’t watching (full disclosure: I also hid my Flintstones vitamins under the living room table; sorry, Mom). So, I went out and bought the largest bottle of sunflower oil at my local grocery store, for a paltry $4.
I set it by my sink with a tablespoon, ready to go. I wasn’t allowed to use it yet because most pro-oil-pulling websites recommend swishing first thing in the morning before brushing.Day One
I took a “before” photo of my teeth as they were. Thanks to my bathroom lighting and coffee habit, they looked especially stained that day, a perfect experiment to see if a single swishing would improve my coloration.Before. When my teeth were young and naïve.
My first swig of oil was what you might call disgusting. The second the oil hit my tongue, it careened over the back of my tongue in a tidal wave of liquid fat, then dripped down the back of my throat, mimicking the sensation of a post-nasal drip, but with all the added charm of pizza grease. I shook my head in protest, and made a few growling noises, like a dog caught in a muzzle. When I finally gave in and swished the oil around, I found it somewhat tolerable. By moving the oil constantly, my taste buds didn’t have quite as much chance to lock in on a static taste.
Minute one passed, then minute two. Around minute three, I realized exactly how long twenty minutes is. Twenty minutes is a one-act play, the majority of a network sitcom, and about how long my dad can talk about ways to get mail-order meat. It’s a long time.
And worse, my tongue was starting to ache. All that swishing involved micro-movements I wasn’t even consciously telling my tongue to engage in. Yet, these tiny muscles were popping up out of nowhere, jumping and sliding to make sure no oil went the wrong way.
After five minutes, I gave up and spat it out. Some websites had said five-to-twenty minutes of oil pulling was sufficient.
“I’m sufficient!” I thought.
Then I brushed my teeth and spent most of the day trying to forget the taste of liquid sunflower nightmares.After one oil-pulling session. Day Ten
By day ten, I had learned to stomach the experience of oil pulling. My muscle memory had adapted to the sensation of viscous fluid creeping across my tongue, and I could keep it relatively in place without too much thought. It was still gross, and too much swishing still made my tongue hurt.
But instead of focusing too much on the movement of the oil, I took the advice of one popular website, which told me to merely gently toss the stream of liquid garbage from one side of my mouth to the other “lazily.” The toxins were getting pulled out anyway, it said. The oil was reaching below the surface of my gums and pulling out bacteria and all sorts of crap, it said. I was reaping the benefits even if it felt too easy.
I really don’t know what other toxins there would be in my mouth, besides bacteria. Thetans? But like all other “detox” fads, this one doesn’t seem to hold water. The body is a marvelous detoxifying machine, and most of us can “detoxify” without any help, making claims about “toxins” pure pseudoscience.Day Thirty
When my month had passed, I was elated. I had spent ten full hours swishing oil around my mouth, and my teeth were... whiter? Healthier? Less... toxified? You be the judge.After a month of oil pulling.
Any change I thought I was seeing in my teeth seemed likely to be suggestion, a suspicion I confirmed later when I removed the captions from the photos and couldn’t tell day one from day thirty. And as for “toxins,” I didn’t feel any healthier than I had before the process began, although the constant oil did make me never want pizza again, which might be a boon for my long-term health.
I put away my oil that day, but it had made me think more about my dental health. I am not a religious dentist-goer, and although I’m a devout brusher, I knew I could be doing more. Flossing was out, since I had read about recent research showing that it added nothing to a consistent brushing routine (Pomeroy 2013).
What else did people do when they turned thirty and suddenly realized their teeth were mortal?
I asked Claire Knowlton, a 31-year old who oil pulls occasionally, what results she has seen from pulling.
“I notice a big improvement in my morning breath when I’ve been oil pulling,” she said. “I think it also has a whitening effect. In the past, it also made my teeth feel dentist-office clean. I started using an electric toothbrush last year, so now my teeth always feel dentist-office clean. But when I was just using a manual toothbrush, oil pulling made a noticeable difference.”
Claire had gotten at the heart of the matter: in lieu of other advanced dental products like antibacterial mouth wash and electric toothbrushes, oil pulling could make a noticeable difference. But for someone like me, who has access to advanced dental care, and who uses a mouth wash every day, the science indicates that oil pulling won’t do anything extra for me, and that using it instead of mouth wash would be a dental step down.
But I still wanted that dentist-clean feel Claire was experiencing. So I ordered an electric toothbrush.
After three days of using my new brush, I noticed something.Whiter teeth! Maybe? Meh, hard to say.
Well, so much for oil pulling being the savior of mouths everywhere, but it still seemed to do the trick better than nothing, and with about 34% of Americans saying they didn’t go to the dentist last year, nothing is exactly what many of us are doing.
Before giving up on sunflower-oil-as-fluoride entirely, I asked Bryan Safi, a comedian from Los Angeles, about his experience with the practice. I asked if he would recommend it to a friend. He already had.
“Have you seen results?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “My teeth feel clean. What's weird is I kind of don't care. It makes me feel like I'm doing something good for my health, and that feeling seems worth it.”References
Amith, HV, et al. 2007. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health and Community Dentistry 1 (1): 12-18.
Asokan, Sharath, et al. 2009. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque Induced Gingivitis: A Randomized, Controlled, Triple-Blind Study. Indian Journal of Dental Research. Online at: http://www.ijdr.in/article.asp?issn=0970-9290;year=2009;volume=20;issue=1;spage=47;epage=51;aulast=asokan.
Shepard, Vicki and Patrick Bogart. 2011. Gallup-Healthways Monthly U.S. Well-Being Report. Online at: http://wellbeing.healthways.com/files/2011_WBI_AugustReport.pdf.
Humane Society International. 2014. About Animal Testing. Online at: http://www.hsi.org/campaigns/end_animal_testing/qa/about.html.
Pomeroy, Ross. 2013. The Flimsy Evidence for Flossing. Online at: http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/the-flimsy-evidence-for-flossing.