Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
When are you going to do oil pulling?!
For about two months, that’s what every other email in my inbox asked, each one more impatient than the last. By not trying the new tooth care regimen, which was making its rounds on the internet, I was obviously failing in my commitment to make myself a human guinea pig for funky claims and health fads. Fun fact: Guinea pigs actually aren’t among the most common animals used in experiments. Rats, mice, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates make up 90% of animals used in laboratories, but “human bird” just doesn’t sound the same.
This oil pulling trend is having its fifteen minutes of fame all over the Web, especially on social media.
“Transform your health!” one ad read.
“Prevent bad breath!”
“Stop dry mouth!”
“Heal jaw soreness!”
“Get whiter teeth!”
“Get healthier gums!”
“Stop looking like a disgusting ogre with thumbs for teeth!”
All I had to do to perfect my pearly whites was swish a tablespoon of oil (sunflower or sesame is preferred) around my mouth for twenty minutes a day, pulling toxins out of my teeth and gums and “improving my overall oral health.” I decided to go for it: for thirty days, I would oil pull every day.
This method of oral torture has its origins in Ayurveda, an ancient healing system from India’s Vedic tradition. While Ayurveda dates back more than 5,000 years, oil pulling’s actual genesis is uncertain. It appears to have become popular in 1992 after a Russian doctor named Fedor Karach advocated the practice, thereby catching the attention of Lt. Col. Tummala Koteswara Rao, an Indian Ayurvedic practitioner. Whether the practice itself is ancient is unclear.
It was the perfect thing for me to try out. Although I take good care of my mouth now, as a child I routinely went to bed without brushing my teeth, telling my mom I had already done it while she wasn’t watching (full disclosure: I also hid my Flintstones vitamins under the living room table; sorry, Mom). So, I went out and bought the largest bottle of sunflower oil at my local grocery store, for a paltry $4.
I set it by my sink with a tablespoon, ready to go. I wasn’t allowed to use it yet because most pro-oil-pulling websites recommend swishing first thing in the morning before brushing.Day One
I took a “before” photo of my teeth as they were. Thanks to my bathroom lighting and coffee habit, they looked especially stained that day, a perfect experiment to see if a single swishing would improve my coloration.Before. When my teeth were young and naïve.
My first swig of oil was what you might call disgusting. The second the oil hit my tongue, it careened over the back of my tongue in a tidal wave of liquid fat, then dripped down the back of my throat, mimicking the sensation of a post-nasal drip, but with all the added charm of pizza grease. I shook my head in protest, and made a few growling noises, like a dog caught in a muzzle. When I finally gave in and swished the oil around, I found it somewhat tolerable. By moving the oil constantly, my taste buds didn’t have quite as much chance to lock in on a static taste.
Minute one passed, then minute two. Around minute three, I realized exactly how long twenty minutes is. Twenty minutes is a one-act play, the majority of a network sitcom, and about how long my dad can talk about ways to get mail-order meat. It’s a long time.
And worse, my tongue was starting to ache. All that swishing involved micro-movements I wasn’t even consciously telling my tongue to engage in. Yet, these tiny muscles were popping up out of nowhere, jumping and sliding to make sure no oil went the wrong way.
After five minutes, I gave up and spat it out. Some websites had said five-to-twenty minutes of oil pulling was sufficient.
“I’m sufficient!” I thought.
Then I brushed my teeth and spent most of the day trying to forget the taste of liquid sunflower nightmares.After one oil-pulling session. Day Ten
By day ten, I had learned to stomach the experience of oil pulling. My muscle memory had adapted to the sensation of viscous fluid creeping across my tongue, and I could keep it relatively in place without too much thought. It was still gross, and too much swishing still made my tongue hurt.
But instead of focusing too much on the movement of the oil, I took the advice of one popular website, which told me to merely gently toss the stream of liquid garbage from one side of my mouth to the other “lazily.” The toxins were getting pulled out anyway, it said. The oil was reaching below the surface of my gums and pulling out bacteria and all sorts of crap, it said. I was reaping the benefits even if it felt too easy.
I really don’t know what other toxins there would be in my mouth, besides bacteria. Thetans? But like all other “detox” fads, this one doesn’t seem to hold water. The body is a marvelous detoxifying machine, and most of us can “detoxify” without any help, making claims about “toxins” pure pseudoscience.Day Thirty
When my month had passed, I was elated. I had spent ten full hours swishing oil around my mouth, and my teeth were... whiter? Healthier? Less... toxified? You be the judge.After a month of oil pulling.
Any change I thought I was seeing in my teeth seemed likely to be suggestion, a suspicion I confirmed later when I removed the captions from the photos and couldn’t tell day one from day thirty. And as for “toxins,” I didn’t feel any healthier than I had before the process began, although the constant oil did make me never want pizza again, which might be a boon for my long-term health.
I put away my oil that day, but it had made me think more about my dental health. I am not a religious dentist-goer, and although I’m a devout brusher, I knew I could be doing more. Flossing was out, since I had read about recent research showing that it added nothing to a consistent brushing routine (Pomeroy 2013).
What else did people do when they turned thirty and suddenly realized their teeth were mortal?
I asked Claire Knowlton, a 31-year old who oil pulls occasionally, what results she has seen from pulling.
“I notice a big improvement in my morning breath when I’ve been oil pulling,” she said. “I think it also has a whitening effect. In the past, it also made my teeth feel dentist-office clean. I started using an electric toothbrush last year, so now my teeth always feel dentist-office clean. But when I was just using a manual toothbrush, oil pulling made a noticeable difference.”
Claire had gotten at the heart of the matter: in lieu of other advanced dental products like antibacterial mouth wash and electric toothbrushes, oil pulling could make a noticeable difference. But for someone like me, who has access to advanced dental care, and who uses a mouth wash every day, the science indicates that oil pulling won’t do anything extra for me, and that using it instead of mouth wash would be a dental step down.
But I still wanted that dentist-clean feel Claire was experiencing. So I ordered an electric toothbrush.
After three days of using my new brush, I noticed something.Whiter teeth! Maybe? Meh, hard to say.
Well, so much for oil pulling being the savior of mouths everywhere, but it still seemed to do the trick better than nothing, and with about 34% of Americans saying they didn’t go to the dentist last year, nothing is exactly what many of us are doing.
Before giving up on sunflower-oil-as-fluoride entirely, I asked Bryan Safi, a comedian from Los Angeles, about his experience with the practice. I asked if he would recommend it to a friend. He already had.
“Have you seen results?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “My teeth feel clean. What's weird is I kind of don't care. It makes me feel like I'm doing something good for my health, and that feeling seems worth it.”References
Amith, HV, et al. 2007. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health and Community Dentistry 1 (1): 12-18.
Asokan, Sharath, et al. 2009. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque Induced Gingivitis: A Randomized, Controlled, Triple-Blind Study. Indian Journal of Dental Research. Online at: http://www.ijdr.in/article.asp?issn=0970-9290;year=2009;volume=20;issue=1;spage=47;epage=51;aulast=asokan.
Shepard, Vicki and Patrick Bogart. 2011. Gallup-Healthways Monthly U.S. Well-Being Report. Online at: http://wellbeing.healthways.com/files/2011_WBI_AugustReport.pdf.
Humane Society International. 2014. About Animal Testing. Online at: http://www.hsi.org/campaigns/end_animal_testing/qa/about.html.
Pomeroy, Ross. 2013. The Flimsy Evidence for Flossing. Online at: http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/the-flimsy-evidence-for-flossing.
In August of 2009, I was asked to tag along with a ghost-hunting group that was going to do a paranormal investigation of a private residence. During a previous visit, the owner had described multiple experiences he has had over the course of a few months—from falling objects and disembodied voices to darting shadows and apparitions. Despite the fact that there were simple and very plausible explanations for everything he experienced, the owner was completely convinced he had purchased a haunted house.
Why? Well, for starters, he hadn’t been able to explain the strange experiences on his own, so he came to the conclusion that the events simply “could not be explained.” In addition, the owner’s girlfriend told him “Yes, there were spirits here.” Since she is a fan of (un)reality paranormal TV shows and a self-proclaimed “sensitive,” this apparently qualifies her to determine if a house has ghosts. Both of them were convinced the previous owner (an elderly woman) was the main ghost because she had died (not even in the house but at the hospital). However, “previous owner died” is apparently a popular motive for ghosts to haunt a location. All of this had put the owner on edge—he was barely sleeping (if at all), he was uneasy being in the house alone, sometimes staying at work for double-shifts so he wouldn’t have to be in the house. As we spoke, I noticed his hands were in constant motion, never able to remain still.
The homeowner’s situation was already bad enough, but it would get worse. A member of the ghost group that was now “investigating” the house, brought up from the basement a brick wrapped in aluminum foil. The owner calmly explained that these bricks had been found in all of the bedrooms after he had taken over the house. His face then grew worried as he asked, “Is this bad?” Against my pleading, this ghost hunter began giving his personal explanation of the meaning behind this finding: they were protection spells keeping dangerous, possibly demonic, entities trapped within the foil-wrapped bricks. That was enough—the owner literally freaked out. He wanted to sell the house; he wanted to leave because he was fearful that there had been demons in his new home. He called his girlfriend, who proceeded to instruct him on Native American rituals he needed to perform to not only protect him but to “cleanse” the house. He was also advised to get the bricks out of the house.
I attempted to offer a more reasonable explanation for the bricks. Since one had been found in each bedroom, the simplest explanation to come to mind was that of an old-fashion form of cheap heat over a cold winter night—bed warmers. Houses built in the 1900s were not as well insulated against the elements as those built today. The foil-wrapped bricks would be placed in the oven (or by the fireplace if the residence had one) for about an hour. Once they were sufficiently warm, they were wrapped in thick newspaper, old blanket remnants, or towels. They were then placed between the sheets, keeping the sleeper’s feet warm. It was a popular belief that if your feet stayed warm, your whole body would stay warm throughout the night (Shingleton 2011; Hale 2007).
Despite the obvious signs of stress the homeowner was exhibiting, the ghost hunter continued on his path of destruction. Another member of this ghost-hunting team had brought out a device called an “Ovilus 1”—which is basically a random word generator loaded with 512 preprogrammed words, each word being assigned to a specific EMF value. According to the instruction manual, the Ovilus will pick words “using environmental energy” to speak (Chappell 2008). An interview with the creator of the device defines the “environmental energy” it samples as EMF, static electricity, and ionization (Belanger 2012). When I got my hands on one, I found that when the device takes a real-time EMF reading, it matches that value to the pre-assigned word in its library and announces it through a speaker. The “voice” is computer generated and difficult to understand, which you can imagine opens up plenty of opportunity for different interpretations.
After the robotic voice produced several words that were deemed unworthy of consideration (disposing of data because it did not support their belief), the ghost hunters perked up upon hearing words they interpreted as “upstairs” and “green” (not together, mind you, there were a few words between them)—which were taken as a convenient description of one of four bedrooms in the house. To top it off, the device then spoke a word that received the most attention, yet had three different interpretations from three members—“Peter,” “meter,” and “demon.” The effect this had on the owner was rather dramatic. Between the red brick explanation and the random word generator, the owner was now convinced he not only had ghosts in his new home but also angry demons.
Over the course of a few hours, I watched the homeowner go from a slightly nervous man who was concerned that something strange was going on in his new home to a guy who was so scared silly to be in his own house that he was willing to do whatever he could to avoid being there. He was grasping at any idea, no matter how ridiculous, that sounded like it would help him be rid of what now seemed to be a team of demonic entities waiting to spring forth from their brick prisons and devour him limb from limb. (Perhaps I have dramatized a bit, but I assure you this is pretty darn close to how hysterical he was).
What happened here?
I contacted Kathleen Stengel to find out. Stengel is a board certified behavioral analyst with the Clarity Service Group (Southampton, Pennsylvania), a nationally certified organization and member of The Pennhurst Group. With several emails back and forth, where I filled her in on the specifics, we agreed on a night to speak. After a busy day, I was able to steal a precious hour from her to talk about behaviors, fears, and ghost hunters.
The first issue to tackle: how the homeowner convinced himself so thoroughly, before the arrival of the ghost hunters, that his house was infested with ghosts of every sort. Stengel explained:
Interestingly enough, I actually did some research as an undergrad and in grad school about Superstitious Responding. Superstitious Responding is typically defined as responding that is maintained through accidental correlation with reinforcement contingencies. So, in layman’s terms what that means is your behavior continues to occur only by accidental inadvertent association with reinforcement . . . you’re responding not because of what is actually going on and what the actual consequences and environmental contingencies are set up for . . . you’re responding because in the past, there was an associated exposure. For example: if a baseball player wears the same socks for every game he happens to win, not because they actually had some effect on the greater good of the team . . . but because he’s worn those socks several times in a row and they just happened to win. It’s a conditioning that happens by accident. (Stengel 2001)
The homeowner would hear voices down the hallway that faded by the time he walked over to them. Since he couldn’t see anyone, he began to assume it was coming from thin air. He never realized they originated from the adjoining house. When shadows danced along the bedroom walls and had the owner frozen in momentary fear, he never got to see the lone car that drove down the street and disappeared around the corner. And the list goes on. The big issue was that events going on outside the house were having an indirect effect inside the house. As Stengel told me, “Superstitious Responding happens because the environment is set to reinforce patterns of behavior” (Stengel 2001). The experiences of the homeowner had played out over and over again, over the course of several months. The owner never looked for a natural cause for more than a few seconds and never found a natural explanation, deeming the experiences “unexplainable”—not to mention a bit frightening to him. Ghosts seemed to be the only solution the homeowner could come up with.
I now had a pretty good idea of how the homeowner’s fears started out, but I knew there had to be more. What I had attended was the second “investigation” of this house; the first had been done several weeks earlier. I learned that the same ghost hunter who believed demons were trapped in bricks had also been present for the team’s first visit. I also learned that he had offered several “explanations” for the ghostly experiences: Yes, there was something there, and he had audio recordings (with static-sounding whispering) and other misinterpreted readings from useless gadgets that “confirmed” the place was haunted. He had also advised the homeowner on what he could do to protect himself and possibly rid the house of these ghosts.
Stengel had this to say:
In terms of the self-proclaimed experts giving the bad advice, this creates more of an interesting paradigm. Now you have someone who already has Superstitious Responding and an authority who validates this contingency. We call these types of behavior contingencies “Rule Governed.” When you put rules into place from an authority figure, you’re going to trust them because of the years and years of authorities being correct. You trust that the information is going to be accurate. Any type of authority figure—whether they got the authority because someone told you they were an authority, they wrote a book, they are a proclaimed “ghost-hunter expert” and/or they have many letters after their name, whether true or artificial experts, they propose a theory that will validate the Superstitious Responding and now the behavior is more solidified in his or her repertoire. Now, you’re actually setting the occasion for behaviors that are going to respond stronger because they have been validated by an authority (Rule Governed) and shaped through accidental consequences (Superstitious Responding). In terms of a behavioral paradigm—this is a perfect storm of contingencies. A person believes this construct and that it is validated by an expert. Essentially, the authority figure conditions a response to avoid unexplained phenomena with little having to do with actual events or fact in the environment. Now you are conditioning a phobia. (Stengel 2001)
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as an excessive, irrational, and persistent fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the individual goes to great lengths to avoid the feared object. If for some reason the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with obvious distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities (Bourne 2011; Fritscher 2011). Stengel explains that “Phobias are those types of behaviors that get conditioned to avoid something and to stay away from [it]. I’m a behaviorist, so I like to break it down into measurable things—I see an increase in heart rate, I see an increase in blood pressure . . . I see a physiological responding that I can, in fact, measure in response to a certain set of stimuli and watch people attempt to avoid these stimuli both in the environment and physiologically. Now you’ve got somebody [homeowner] who is actually having physiological responses and stimuli avoidance behaviors, which most psychologists would say now you have an anxiety response” (Stengel 2001).
According to Medical News Today, anxiety is a general term used to describe several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms (Nordqvist 2009). All of us have normal fears, like the few minutes before having to speak to a crowd or going to an interview. Anxiety becomes an issue when these fears affect how a person functions during their daily life.
“These people [ghost hunters] are conditioning all of these extraneous things as aversive stimuli. Now whenever anything ‘unexplainable’ happens, it immediately produces a physiological response—it puts your body in a Fight or Flight situation. A lot of people would call this stress. They’re putting people in a stressful situation” (Stengel 2001). Stress is the body’s natural reaction when you feel threatened, be it a real or imagined danger. When this happens, your hypothalamus (a tiny area at the base of your brain) tells your adrenal glands to releases stress hormones into the blood stream, such as cortisol and adrenaline (Mayo Clinic 2010). Your muscles tighten up, your heart beats quicker, blood pressure shoots up, and your senses become sharper—you’re ready for immediate action.
Stress can be helpful in certain situations. It makes us stronger, more focused, and our reaction time quickens—excellent when fighting off an attacker or avoiding an accident. However, when it gets beyond a certain point, stress begins to damage your health and overall quality of life. Just where that “certain point” is . . . well, it’s different for each of us. Some of us can handle more than others. Once you cross over to the dark side, long-term exposure to these hormones can screw up your system and put you at greater risk of heart disease, depression, obesity, memory impairment, and sleep problems (Mayo Clinic 2010).
The symptoms of stress and anxiety include any and/or all of the following: Excessive, ongoing worry and tension; an unrealistic view of problems; fatigue; restlessness; irritability; muscle tension; headaches; sweating; lack of focus; nausea; frequent trips to the bathroom; trouble falling or staying asleep; trembling; and easily being startled (Mayo Clinic 2010). It’s easy to understand how prolonged exposure to such issues can destroy a normal lifestyle, leading to some serious health issues.
I’ve seen this type of behavior in many homeowners who have come to me, either directly or through a friend, believing their home to be infested with ghosts. In most cases they describe countless sleepless nights, refusing to enter certain rooms or areas, nervousness, heightened stress, nightmares . . . the list goes on. What I’ve frequently observed is that these fears are started by thehomeowner, but are being solidified into true phobias by the ghost hunters who claim to offer “professional help.” Unfortunately, their idea of “help” has resulted in more damage to these people and their quality of life than anything remotely beneficial.
In the real world, we take advice from those we deem experts—mechanics who fix our cars, plumbers who fix our leaky pipes, and doctors who fix our bodies. We derive their expertise from many sources: licenses, permits, certifications, advertisements, equipment, and simply from owning or being employed by an actual business. In the Age of Instant Access, we usually find professionals/experts we’re looking for by surfing through their websites—fast and easy.
Unfortunately for someone who is already stressed, scared, and somewhat desperate for answers, a fancy website that boasts a lot of “scientifical” (Hill 2011) information is viewed as an authority on the subject of the paranormal. Self-titled ghost hunters (with many taking on the moniker of “paranormal investigator”) arrive at homes and businesses—armed with technology they don’t understand or use correctly, “knowledge” with no factual basis, and opinions they pass off as concrete facts—all of which present them as an authority to the common public. The team does their “woo woo” investigation, and in a few hours they declare the site haunted . . . then proceed to give advice based on bad information, even worse techniques, and conclusions that are basically made-up on the spot.
Oh, and they are apparently conditioning and reinforcing phobias that produce anxiety, stress, a decrease in the quality of life, and even substantial financial losses. These ghost hunters need to understand that this is not just some hobby that makes their weekends a good time; they are dealing with people’s lives (whole families at times). They’re giving advice on matters they do not truly understand, that fearful people are taking seriously and adjusting their lives to accommodate. What’s worse is they’re doing it completely unsupervised, answering to no one but themselves.
In the case I detailed in the beginning of this article, the two self-proclaimed, “expert” paranormal investigators managed to send the poor homeowner into a panic. Without the ghost-hunting group there, I really don’t think the owner’s fears would have escalated so much in such a short amount of time. I have no doubt that the group’s presence only made this man’s situation much worse than it actually was. Not long after the debacle they called an “investigation,” the owner sold the house to his niece . . . never mentioning a word about his experiences/fears, and taking a financial loss. He stated that he “just wanted to be done with it and away from there.” He could no longer handle being in a house that he believed was literally possessed by evil spirits.
Ghost hunters and their “clients” suffer from the same problem that caused the situation above, as well as hundreds of similar cases—a lack of critical thinking. Ghost hunters accept much of their “knowledge” at face value, taking what they learn from their favorite ParaTV shows, books by other ghost hunters, and the tons of science-sounding websites. Believing they are helping the public and furthering the “field of ghost research,” they are free to pass along this knowledge without fear of consequences or being held accountable when they are wrong (which is normally the case).
There are no certifications from accredited institutions on ghost hunting or paranormal investigation. There are no licenses, permits, or government seals of approval for investigating the paranormal. The point is that ghost hunters have no actual training on how to do what they claim they do; they simply mimic what they see on TV and the Internet. Critical thinking, asking questions, asking for educational and training background—these are some of the tools that can help the general paranormal-believing public avoid many of the issues discussed in this article, as well as would-be ghost-hunting “authorities.”References
Belanger, Jeff. Episode 39—Paranormal Inventor Bill Chappell. 30 Odd Minutes. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vseWfQrv7Cw.
Bourne, E.J. 2011. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook 5th Ed.New Harbinger Publications, 50–51.
Chappell, Bill. 2008. The Ovilus 1 instruction manual. Digital Dowsing, LLC, 3.
Fritscher, Lisa. 2011. What is a phobia? Understanding your phobia. About.com. Available at http://phobias.about.com/od/introductiontophobias/a/whatisphobia.htm.
Hale, Leon. 2007. Hale: Simple brick drives away night chills. Chron.com. Available at http://www.chron.com/life/hale/article/Hale-Simple-brick-drives-away-night-chills-1818384.php.
Hill, Sharon. 2011. Scientific or scientifical? Doubtful News. Available at http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/scientific-or-scientifical/.
Mayo Clinic. 2010. Stress management. Available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/SR00001.
Nordqvist, Christan. 2009. What is anxiety? What causes anxiety? What to do about it. Medical News Today. Available at http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/7603.php.
Shingleton, Pat. 2011. Hot bricks and bed warmers. Available at http://www.wbrz.com/news/hot-bricks-and-bed-warmers-.
Stengel, Kathleen. 2001. Personal communication with the author (December 13).
With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.The mysterious Rhode Island “UFO.”
On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. Binoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.
And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. The shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.
I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.
Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw. The first step was to download and enlarge the one good photo I took. Even with a maximum pixel setting on a professional camera using a top-quality zoom lens on maximum telephoto there wasn’t that much detail. It was clearly parallelogram shaped, but even with some post-photo enhancement there wasn’t much to see—no evidence of wings or motors, or any kind of craft in the air or water or on the land pulling it along.
Next step: Just how far away was it and how fast was it moving? Google Maps and the fact that I had an excellent idea of the exact direction helped. (For our ham radio contest we were using highly directional antennas mounted on tripods with a compass rose calibrated to one degree of azimuth.) It turned out it was a good fourteen miles away when I first saw it and when it disappeared between near and far hills it was at least eighteen miles away—twice as far as my initial guess. And that also meant it was moving twice as fast as I initially thought: Perhaps fifty or sixty miles per hour, not thirty. Using the houses along the beach I also was able to roughly estimate its size: Somewhere around 100 feet long and maybe forty to fifty feet high. So it was too big to be a boat-towed parasail or ultralight aircraft.
Then, using Google Maps again, I looked around the area where it dived steeply between those hills. The Westerly Airport was in that area. So I called the airport and described what I thought I saw: A slowly moving, self powered large craft shaped like a big parallelogram. And here’s where it would have been very easy to have been led astray. They had no knowledge of any such craft and suggested it may have been some kind of military plane. Understandable, given what I described, but it led me on a brief wild goose chase with calls to military installations in the general area. They were polite but said they had nothing that would fit that description. Now perhaps a paranoid investigator would have stopped at that point and claimed, “government cover-up. Case closed.” To me, that would have been the least likely explanation (After “alien spacecraft” of course.)
Wondering where I could go next, I suddenly realized what I should have done initially: The Block Island Airport was only a mile from my observation point and it’s extremely busy on September weekends with small aircraft taking off and landing every few minutes. If my mystery craft was something ordinary they likely would know. And if it were something truly unusual certainly some of the dozens of pilots going in and out that afternoon would have reported it. I had my answer within a minute of calling the airport and explaining my sighting to the airport manager.Mystery Rhode Island “UFO” revealed. An advertisement banner in tow behind an airplane.
“What you saw was most likely a large advertising banner being towed by a small plane along the shoreline.” Bingo! Follow-up investigations revealed that there is indeed a banner towing service that operates out of the Westerly Airport. (Why didn’t the airport mention this when I called? Perhaps because what I described did not sound like a banner being towed by a small plane.) And in reading about the banner towing business I learned that the planes fly very slowly, can tow really large banners (up to 150 feet by 50 feet), can be quite a long distance from the banner itself, and often fly a zigzag course. (Which would explain why the “UFO” seemed to change shape from time to time.)
After the mystery craft was identified, I went back and looked closely at my photo. You won’t see it here in this reduced size, but on the original, and under very close inspection, you can see a tiny dot, just a few pixels in size, a couple hundred feet ahead of the now identified banner. That would be the tow plane—far too small to be identified in a photo or possibly even with binoculars at the distance from which I was observing. All the more so if one was concentrating on a bizarre flying object and not specifically looking for a small plane nearby.
Those who wish to investigate the weird or the paranormal may take away some lessons from this incident. I learned that it certainly pays to be persistent in investigating and not stop at “I have no idea” or “Well, it may be a. . . .” And once you have a good idea of the phenomenon, be sure to follow up to obtain confirmation.
Combining myths of the American Sasquatch—better known since 1958 as “Bigfoot”—and various swamp monsters, Florida’s “Skunk Ape” is reportedly a large, shaggy, man-beast that haunts, especially, Florida’s wilderness areas (Coleman and Huyghe 1999, 56–57). On a trip to the state’s Panhandle region in October 2011, I was able to begin to look into the various legends and sightings—first, with a day’s excursion into the remote Tate’s Hell1 wilderness area (Figure 1) and part of a night in the Apalachicola National Forest with Dr. Gary A. Stillwell as guide, and, second, research trips to the state’s Wildlife Commission offices and State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee.Figure 1. The author looking for Skunk Apes in Florida’s Tate’s Hell region. (Author’s photo by Dr. Gary A. Stillwell)
I have since conducted much additional research on the fabled creature, which is essentially only a regional variant of the North American Bigfoot itself—see my “Bigfoot Lookalikes” (Nickell 2013). (After the Pacific Northwest, Florida and Pennsylvania are the most Bigfoot-reported regions of North America—at least through 1980 [Nickell 2011, 225].) In addition to Skunk Ape, it has been called Stink Ape, Skunk Man, Skunk Monkey, Swamp Man, The Swamp Monster, and, among many others, the Bardin Booger. (The latter beast—reported in the region around the logging community of Bardin—is a sub-variant, itself having such names as Wooly Booger, Bardin Goomer, and several others, including even The Boogie Man, a name that reveals something of its status as a folk monster [Jenkins 2010, 80, 102].) Here is some of what I discovered about the Skunk Ape.Skunk Ape Portrait
I studied a wealth of hairy man-beast encounters, selecting—from a pro-Bigfoot data base of 1,002 reports (1818–1980 [Bord and Bord 2006, 213–310)—all forty-two entries for Florida, to which I added thirty-five more from another such source (1818–2008 [Jenkins 2010, 77–128]) for a total of seventy-seven case studies. I then extracted data to determine the averages for the following characteristics of the Skunk Ape.
Physical description. The Florida Skunk Ape has generally black or “dark” long hair or fur—one report described it as seemingly “covered in fur, as if wearing a fur coat” (Jenkins 2010, 114). It may also be brown, or—in one 1848 instance—white. It has a large, round head with big, shining eyes, no appreciable neck, and broad, rounded shoulders. When standing upright, it has “long dangling arms,” in one case being observed “swinging its arms as dogs yapped at it” (Bord and Bord 2006, 244).
However, it is seen in various positions: one creature was “close to the ground, as if kneeling,” while another “stood up in a half crouch,” then took a “huge stance with hunched shoulders”; still another was “a huge shape” that “stood up,” while often the creatures were first seen standing, watching people. Estimates of its height vary greatly, from as short as four feet to as tall as ten, but the average is 7.45 feet (slightly smaller than the overall North American Bigfoot average of 7.57, determined from the 1,002 cases cited previously). Limited estimates of its weight yield an average of 508.3 pounds.2 Its gait is sometimes said to be unusual—for instance, “exaggerated.” One witness said the creature “wobbled” as it walked (Jenkins 2010, 96, 105).
Odor. The Skunk Ape is supposedly distinguished as “smelly,” occasionally likened to its namesake, but more often it is characterized descriptively as having a “rancid, putrid odor,” like “that of rotten food and dead animal” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245; Jenkins 2010, 898), or having “the usual scent of cabbage and rotten eggs” (Jenkins 2010, 99). In fact, however, similar Bigfoot creatures across North America are also commonly described as “smelly,” “strong-smelling,” having a “strong animal smell,” “nauseating odor,” or a smell as of a “sewer” or “rotten eggs,” and the like (Bord and Bord 2006, 23, 234, 247, 249, 270, 272).
Behavior. The Skunk Ape’s behavior is typically similar to that of Bigfoot everywhere. It is frequently seen standing among trees, crossing a road (and occasionally being hit by a car), rummaging in garbage, drinking water or catching fish from a lake or stream, visiting campsites, standing to peer into windows, and so on. It typically vocalizes by growling, grunting, grumbling, or producing “stressed breathing” and, at least once, “clicking sounds,” among others (although at times there is no sighting and so no certainty that the sound was that of a Skunk Ape) (Jenkins 2010, 111, 117, 123).
Habitat. Skunk Apes are encountered generally in remote areas, notably forests and swamps, including the Everglades, as well as other national and state parks. They are attracted to human habitations—campsites, cabins and other outlying homes, and garbage dumps—in search of food (Jenkins 2010, 77–128).
Sign. Any evidence that a certain type of animal has been in a given area is called its sign. This can include tracks, indications of feeding (such as food remnants), scat (fecal matter), and the like. In the seventy-seven cases studied, the Skunk Ape’s signs include large tracks, typically up to 17.5 inches and with five toes (Bord and Bord 2006, 257, 262). Other on-site indicators were broken branches, a puddle of apparent urine, and uprooted plants (Jenkins 2010, 88, 95, 101).Suspects
As it happens, there is a known animal that actually has the foregoing characteristics: the black bear (Ursus americanus). It is typically covered with shiny black fur and has a tan or grizzled snout. Black bears can also be other colors, including cinnamon and even white (Herrero 2002, 131–32). A large one can stand seven feet tall (Yosemite 2013), weighing in the range of 203–587 pounds (Whitaker 1996, 703). When it stands, its “arms” dangle. It has a big head, large shining eyes, “no neck” (as is said of the Skunk Ape), and rounded shoulders.
Bears can be malodorous, and some people claim they can smell them when they are nearby (Herrero 2002, 115). Since bears often scavenge on dead animals and rummage in garbage bins and open dumps (Herrero 2002, 43, 156; Whitaker 1996, 706), they might be expected sometimes to be “smelly.”
Bears stand on their hind legs for various reasons, such as when necessary to peer in a window or when trying to sense something, sniffing the air. They can walk in ungainly fashion this way. States one expert, “No doubt the ability of bears to stand on two feet has influenced some people’s perception of them as being humanlike . . .” (Herrero 2002, 139). Indeed, the bear’s hind footprint is “remarkably human-like,” especially when, in late summer, the claws are worn and “may not show up at all” in its tracks. At moderate speeds the hind and fore feet may superimpose to “give the appearance of a single track made by a bipedal creature” (Napier 1973, 150–51).
Bears behave like Bigfoot often does. They stand and watch people, visit their camps and homes, wade in streams seeking fish, climb trees for protection, and so on. They vocalize with growls, snorts, and loud huffing noises; common defensive display is “blowing with clacking teeth” (Whitaker 1996, 703–706; Herrero 2002, 15, 16, 115; Rogers 1992, 3–4).
Black bear habitat is similar to that of Bigfoot, since it consists of “primarily forests and swamps” (Whitaker 1996, 704). The big mammals once occupied all of Florida’s mainland, as well as some coastal islands and the larger Keys, but settlement reduced their range to scattered core areas now designated as primary range (containing core bear population) and secondary range (where bear movement is also significant although the range is less optimal) (“Black Bears” 2013). In addition to tracks, scat, and other signs, bears leave feeding signs that include broken vegetation (mangled berry patches, broken fruit-true branches, uprooted plants) and remnants of carrion and large prey.Some Brief Case Studies
Here are a few reports of Florida Skunk Ape encounters that could be explained as misidentifications of bears:
• In 1957, in the Everglades in late afternoon, a wild-boar hunter encountered “What looked like a bear squatting,” but then “the thing slowly stood up to a staggering height of about eight feet.” As he backed away out of the dark thicket, he glimpsed sunlight on the eyes yielding “a yellow-orange glow like the eyes of a wild animal,” and the hunter ran to his truck (Jenkins 2010, 89–90.). Apparently the only thing that made him think the bearlike creature was not a bear was his mistaken belief that bears do not stand upright.
• In 1960, in a sparsely populated area near Hollywood (near the outskirts of the Everglades), an “adolescent skunk ape” walked out of a drainage ditch after midnight, then stood in the center of the road. From fifty yards away, the driver of a car saw that the creature was no more than five feet tall, had long arms and a round head. It was “covered in dark fur and had no observable facial features” (Jenkins 2010, 91–92).
• In 1966, near the Andote River, a man reported seeing Bigfoot “standing in trees” and having a “rancid, putrid odor” (Bord and Bord 2006, 245).
• In 1969, near Davie, Florida, a man encountered a “smelly, growling Bigfoot” in an abandoned guava orchard, and another man saw a “huge black Bigfoot treed by dogs” in an orange grove; “it swung away through the trees,” then dived into a canal (Bord and Bord 2006, 256). Black bears feed on various fruit and even climb trees for food, with broken fruit-tree branches being among the common signs of black-bear activity (Whitaker 1996, 703, 705). I suspect the phrase swung away through the trees in the account crept in because of the notion that Skunk Apes are apelike; I suggest the man misperceived how the bear made its mad scramble through the branches to the canal.
• In 1971, at Crystal River, four men saw four manlike animals on an embankment outside “a massive forest.” They were picking at some plants (later found “pulled away from the earth”). The creatures were furry “from head to toe” and had “long arms and large heads that were not proportionate to their bodies” (Jenkins 2010, 100). The description is quite similar to bears, among whose feeding signs is “ground pawed up for roots” (Whitaker 1996, 703).Conclusions
Of course not all Skunk Ape reports represent sightings of bears. Some are the product of folklore (as Jenkins [2010, 79–81] readily admits), or the misidentification of other wildlife (especially those “encounters” consisting of northing more than sounds or eyeshine), and many could well be outright hoaxes. In fact, Bigsuit-style pranks were common regarding north-central Florida’s Skunk Ape known as the Bardin Booger (Daegling 2004, 237–45).
However, considerable evidence suggests that bears, which are known to exist, can be mistaken for the Skunk Ape as well as Bigfoot in general, the existence of which lacks proof. We must recall the principle of Occam’s razor (named for fourteenth-century philosopher William of Ockham), which holds that the simplest tenable explanation—the one with the fewest assumptions—is most likely to be correct.Acknowledgments
In addition to Dr. Gary A. Stillwell, to whom I am most indebted, I am also grateful to the staff of the State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee, to CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga, and CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan.Notes
1. Tate’s Hell State Park is said to be “One of the prime habitats for the swamp-dwelling Sasquatch” (Hinson 2010).
2. For two of the cases in Bord and Bord (2006, 246, 262), I found weight data from another source (“Skunk Ape” 2013), thus making a total of six estimates of weight for all of my seventy-seven cases.References
Black Bears Distribution Map. 2013. Available at http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/black-bears/distribution-map/; accessed April 22, 2013.
Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 2006. Bigfoot Casebook Updated: Sightings and Encounters from 1818 to 2004. N.p.: Pine Winds Press.
Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon Books.
Daegling, David J. 2004. Bigfoot Exposed. NY: AltaMira Press.
Herrero, Stephen. 2002. Bear Attacks, rev. ed. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.
Hinson, Mark. 2010. Florida is a haven for vampires, Skunk Apes and Pig Men. Tallahassee Democrat (October 31).
Jenkins, Greg. 2010. Chronicles of the Strange and Uncanny in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.
Napier, John. 1973. Bigfoot. New York: E.P. Dutton.
Nickell, Joe. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. Bigfoot lookalikes. Skeptical Inquirer 37(5) (September/October): 12–15.
Rogers, Lynn L. 1992. Watchable Wildlife: The Black Bear. Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, North Central Station Distribution Center.
Skunk Ape. 2013. Available at http://www.weirdus.com/states/florida/bizarre_beasts/skunk_ape/; accessed April 22, 2013.
Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Yosemite Black Bears. 2013. Available at http://www.yosemitepark.com/bear-facts.aspx; accessed March 25, 2013.
The Houston doctor Stanislaw Burzynski has been using an unproven cancer cure, “antineoplastons,” for decades, but despite its lack of proven anticancer activity, he has still not been shut down. Here is a primer for skeptics on his career and claims.
About a year ago, I received an unexpected email from a film producer named Eric Merola asking me if I would appear in his upcoming movie about Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD. Burzynski is controversial, to put it mildly. Since the founding of the Burzynski Clinic in 1977, he has claimed near-miraculous results treating patients with advanced malignancies, particularly deadly brain cancers like glioblastomas. Merola, who had previously released a film in 2010 praising Burzynski as a scientist with a cure for many cancers who is persecuted by the authorities, explained that he wanted a critic of Burzynski in his new movie. Given Merola’s history of deceptive filmmaking, I politely declined.
When his second movie, Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 was released in June 2013, my decision was validated, because the movie turned out to be every bit the propaganda piece for Burzynski that I had feared, a true sequel (Gorski 2013a). Merola’s movie also continued a pattern that had begun in 2011 of allies of the Burzynski Clinic attacking critics, in this case portraying skeptics as heartless Big Pharma shills harassing patients with terminal cancer.
Unfortunately, as propaganda, Merola’s movie was sufficiently compelling that the leader of a large skeptical group in southern California who attended a screening in March stood up at the Q&A afterward to say that he was persuaded that Burzynski was on to something (Gorski 2013b). Although he quickly reversed himself and admitted that he had made an enormous mistake (Gleason 2013), the damage had been done, and this skeptic’s endorsement can still be found on YouTube (Merola 2013). Given the harm Burzynski has done for four decades and how little most skeptics know about him, Bob Blaskiewicz, who wrote a companion piece to this article about his skeptical activism regarding the Burzynski Clinic, and I decided that a primer for skeptics about Stanislaw Burzynski was long overdue.Stanislaw Burzynski: The Early Years
Although little is known about Stanislaw Burzynski’s childhood and youth aside from what he himself has told sympathetic sources like his longtime lawyer Richard A. Jaffe (Jaffe 2008) and columnist Thomas Elias (2009), in many ways he represents a classic immigrant rags-to-riches story. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland in the city of Lublin on January 23, 1943, as the Holocaust in Poland was entering its deadliest phase, Stanislaw Burzynski was mostly sheltered from the grim reality of Nazi-occupied Poland during his earliest years because of his mother’s wealth. After the war, when Burzynski was five, Stanislaw’s older brother Zygmunt was killed fighting the newly installed Communist regime. In his book, Elias quoted him invoking his brother thusly, “The idea of fighting people in authority became natural to me. I learned that you must never let them defeat you in your own core.” This sort of determination could have been an admirable trait—if only Burzynski had found a worthy cause to serve.
Unfortunately, the cause he found was antineoplastons.(Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com) Antineoplastons
The first use of the word antineoplastons (ANPs, derived from “neoplasm,” or cancer) in a PubMed-indexed article occurred in 1976 (Burzynski 1976), but Burzynski claims that he had thought of the concept a decade earlier as a medical student at the Medical Academy at Lublin. There, the young Burzynski had become intensely fascinated by amino acids and peptides in wild mushrooms and studied uses for them in agriculture. His work was productive—impressive, even—for a medical student, with six scientific papers indexed in PubMed. In medical school, Burzynski studied differences in peptides and amino acids found in the blood and urine of renal failure patients, claiming that cancer patients had a lower level of some of these substances. In 1968, his work in this area resulted in a thesis titled Investigations on Amino Acids and Peptides in Blood Serum of Healthy People and Patients with Chronic Renal Insufficiency (Elias 2009; Green 2001; Smith 1992). By 1970, as a promising young research physician Burzynski was being recruited to join the Communist Party but obstinately refused and soon learned that as a result he would be drafted into the Polish Army. Not wanting to end his research, he fled Poland and arrived at JFK Airport, as he delights in recounting, “with only $20” in his pocket.
After staying briefly with an uncle, Burzynski soon obtained a research position in the Department of Anesthesia at the Baylor College of Medicine in a laboratory headed by Georges Ungar, a Hungarian refugee with whom he immediately hit it off. Ungar was famous at the time for proposing that memory resided in peptides in the brain and for his experiments to “transfer” memory by transferring the putative “memory” peptides from one mouse brain to another. It was a hypothesis that seemed to be supported by his experiments but soon faded from favor (Setlow 1997). At Baylor, Burzynski split his time between working on Ungar’s projects and studying his antineoplastons (Elias 2009, Smith 1992). He appeared to be well on his way to becoming a successful cancer researcher, securing an NIH grant in 1974 (Smith 1992, Burzynski 2012) and publishing several peer-reviewed papers.
So where did everything go wrong? How did this promising young Polish researcher evolve into the dangerous “brave maverick doctor” we know today? To answer that question requires a discussion of ANPs.Do ANPs Work?
After nearly forty years, it is still not entirely clear exactly what Burzynski originally isolated, but it is clear that antineoplastons almost certainly do not have significant anticancer activity. Excellent detailed summaries of the state of the evidence have been provided by Saul Green (2001; 1992) and, more recently, on the American Cancer Society (2012) and National Cancer Institute (2013a; 2013b) websites. In brief, based on his hypothesis that a naturally occurring biochemical system in the body, distinct from the immune system, could “correct” cancer cells by means of “special chemicals that reprogram misdirected cells,” Burzynski used gel filtration to separate blood and urine fractions and test them in cell culture for anticancer activity. Of his original thirty-nine fractions, today Burzynski treats patients mainly with AS-2.1 (also known as Astugenal or Fengenal) and A-10 (also known as Atengenal or Cengenal). As Saul Green (2001; 1992) and others (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998) have reported, AS-2.1 is the sodium salt of phenylacetic acid (PA), a potentially toxic chemical produced by normal metabolism and detoxified in the liver to phenylacetylglutamine (PAG). To boil ANP chemistry down to its essence, AS-2.1 is primarily a mixture of PA and PAG, and AS-10 is primarily PA. Of note, PA had been studied as a potential anticancer agent years before Burzynski discovered it (Sandler and Close 1959) and, although it has been studied intermittently for fifty years, it has shown little promise against brain tumors (Chang et al. 1999).
Consistent with what is known, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) characterized the concentrations of ANPs required to show antitumor effects in cell culture or animal studies as “excessively high” and reflecting a “lack of activity” (NCI 2013a), concluding very generously that the evidence that ANPs have significant anticancer activity is “inconclusive.” In 1999 the Mayo Clinic published a phase 2 clinical trial of ANPs versus recurrent glioma (Buckner et al. 1999). Other investigators have had difficulty replicating Burzynski’s results, including the NCI, Sigma-Tau Pharmaceuticals, and the Japanese National Cancer Institute (Green 2001; 1992). The one exception is Hideaki Tsuda, a Japanese anesthesiologist at Kurume University, who claims to have observed remarkable results in a randomized clinical trial adding ANPs to chemotherapy infused directly into the hepatic artery to treat liver metastases from colorectal cancer. Indeed, Dr. Tsuda appeared in the most recent Burzynski documentary touting impressive results from this clinical trial. Unfortunately, at this writing, these results remain unpublished, and Tsuda’s previously published ANP work is not impressive. Amusingly, Eric Merola sent out a complaint on social media lamenting that the Lancet Oncology rejected Dr. Tsuda’s manuscript, ascribing the rejection to a Big Pharma conspiracy to suppress ANPs (Gorski 2013c).
Over the last decade, Burzynski appears to have given up trying to appear scientific and has not published in anything resembling a reputable journal for a long time. A PubMed search reveals no primary scientific reports since 2006, and the only clinical trials he has published were preliminary results of two phase 2 trials ten years ago (Burzynski et al. 2003; 2004) or retrospective. In short, Burzynski’s science has failed to progress since the late 1970s. If Burzynski’s science is stagnant now, how did it reach this stage? The answer to this question began nearly thirty-eight years ago.1976: The Descent from Science Begins
In 1976, Burzynski deemed antineoplastons ready to be tested against cancer in a clinical trial. Characteristically, despite having had no formal training in oncology and no experience in clinical trial design, Burzynski judged himself to be uniquely qualified to be principal investigator of such a trial. Unfortunately for him, internal politics at Baylor had led to Ungar’s ouster from the Department of Anesthesia, and the new chair, not unreasonably, did not view Burzynski’s research as appropriate for a department of anesthesia. If Burzynski is to be believed, the director of Baylor’s new cancer research center wanted to hire him, as did Ungar at his new job. However, Baylor wanted Burzynski to sign away rights to his discoveries (a standard condition in academia), and Burzynski did not want to follow Ungar to Knoxville because he was afraid that the University of Tennessee would impose the same condition. There was another condition that rankled him as well. Shortly after he had obtained his Texas medical license in 1973, Burzynski started working part time at a private practice. There, he had apparently administered antineoplastons to cancer patients, the result being a twenty-one patient case series published in 1977 (Burzynski et al. 1977), implying that he had likely been treating patients with ANPs as early as 1975. Baylor’s additional requirement was that Burzynski give up his private practice—a deal breaker, because, as Elias describes, “As long as he [Burzynski] had a private practice, he believed he could use whatever medications he thought most effective, subject only to the consent of his patients.” This speaks volumes about Burzynski’s attitude toward scientific medicine and ethics, an attitude that appears not to have changed appreciably since then.
In late 1976, Burzynski applied to the Baylor Institutional Review Board (IRB), the ethics committee that approves and reviews human subjects research, to begin a clinical trial of ANPs. He was turned down. Both Elias and Jaffe claim that the reason was because Burzynski didn’t have an “investigational new drug” application (IND), which the FDA requires before it will approve a clinical trial of an experimental drug, an explanation that rings false because in general it is not necessary to have IRB approval before applying for an IND (US FDA 2013a). In fact, it is not surprising that the Baylor IRB balked. In 1977 there almost certainly were not sufficient preclinical data to justify a clinical trial. It wasn’t even clear yet exactly what ANPs were, as Burzynski hadn’t yet identified all their constituents, and institutional review boards are very reluctant to approve a clinical trial involving compounds that are incompletely characterized. Undeterred, Burzynski shopped his protocol around to other hospitals. Ultimately, the IRB at Twelve Oaks Hospital approved his application. Jaffe’s account of this time period (Jaffe 2008) illustrates the incipient ethical slide into oblivion. For example, before leaving Baylor, Burzynski had lawyers investigate the legality of treating patients with ANPs. Their advice to him was that, because Texas didn’t have a “mini-FDA” act, in which only FDA-approved drugs could be administered to patients, treating patients with ANPs was legal under Texas law at the time, as long as the ANPs were not shipped across state lines (Merola 2010).
In the late 1970s, Burzynski went to great lengths to obtain the raw materials necessary for his work, given that before he figured out how to synthesize antineoplastons chemically in 1980, isolating ANPs required thirty liters of urine per day per patient. The difficulty in obtaining such huge quantities of “raw materials” can only be imagined, but ANPs could also be isolated from blood. Amusingly, before he left Baylor, Burzynski was notorious for appearing at social functions with blood collection supplies and begging, wheedling, and cajoling friends and acquaintances to donate blood from which he could isolate ANPs. Jaffe drolly noted that after a while Burzynski “noticed he was getting fewer and fewer invitations to parties, and, when his friends would see him on campus or the street, they would turn and walk away quickly, pretending they didn’t see him.” After Burzynski opened his clinic in 1977, huge quantities of urine were required as raw material to isolate ANPs. To get it, Burzynski arranged to install urine collectors in public parks and even the state penitentiary system. He even collected urine from Gilley’s Bar, where Urban Cowboy was filmed. Perhaps John Travolta himself contributed to some of those early ANP batches.Abuse of the Clinical Trial Process
One of the most common claims made by Burzynski and his supporters is that he must be on to something because the FDA keeps letting him register phase 2 clinical trials and even let him register a phase 3 clinical trial in 2010. Phase 2 trials are small preliminary clinical trials, sometimes not randomized, designed to identify indications of efficacy. They lay the groundwork for phase 3 trials, which are the large randomized clinical trials that ultimately result in drug approval by the FDA. To date, although Burzynski has published occasional case studies and partial results of two phase 2 trials, he has not published the complete results of any of his phase 2 trials. Of the sixty-one clinical trials registered on ClinicalTrials.gov with Burzynski as the principal investigator, only one has been completed, but it has not been published. Of the remaining sixty trials, the statuses of fifty are unknown; seven were withdrawn; two have been terminated; and one has not yet been opened to accrual (ClinicalTrials.gov 2013), and the phase 3 trial has never accrued a single patient. Merola promised in his movie that Burzynski’s phase 2 results will be published “soon,” and others claim that Burzynski is preparing at least a dozen manuscripts for publication. However, Burzynski has been promising to publish for years and has not produced anything substantive. This failure to publish is not surprising given the origin of these trials, as we will soon see.
From the late 1970s to 1998, Burzynski was under nearly constant investigation by medical authorities, beginning with the Harris County Medical Society in 1979 (Jaffe 2008; Elias 2009; Null 1979) and continuing with the Texas Medical Board and the FDA. Indeed, the Texas Medical Board has tried to strip Burzynski of his license to practice at least twice, failing to do so in 1993 (Jaffe 2008; Elias 2009) and most recently in 2012 (Gorski 2012). However, it was the prosecution brought against Burzynski by the FDA during the 1990s that spawned the oft-touted “six dozen” clinical trials. Here’s how it happened. In the fall of 1995, a grand jury indicted Burzynski for seventy-five counts of insurance fraud and violations of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. As part of this process, Judge Simeon Lake of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, ruled that Burzynski’s “continued pretrial release” was contingent upon his administering his drugs exclusively through FDA-approved clinical trials (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998).
By this time, however, Burzynski had cultivated powerful allies, in particular Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), who held a series of hearings featuring cancer patients who were, quite understandably, terrified that Burzynski would be convicted. (Remember, these patients were completely convinced that Burzynski was the only person who could save them.) Between the cynical political theater, featuring weeping parents of children with brain tumors, national press stories of demonstrations featuring patients chanting “FDA go away! Let me live another day!” and the intense political pressure brought to bear by Barton, who dragged then-FDA Director David Kessler in front of his committee four times over two years to explain why the FDA was “harassing” Burzynski, the FDA ultimately relented and entered negotiations to let Burzynski set up clinical trials. Taking advantage of the ruling and the political pressure on the FDA, Burzynski and Jaffe decided, in essence, “If the judge wants clinical trials, we’ll give him clinical trials.” So that’s just what they did.
Prosecutors pleaded with the FDA not to give in because it would undermine their case, but the FDA overruled them. First, patients already being treated were enrolled in a wastebasket trial known as “CAN-1” (Jaffe 2008; Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998), a retrospective trial looking at all patients then being treated at the Burzynski Clinic. Of this trial, Jaffe (2008) wrote:
. . . As far as clinical trials go, it [CAN-1] was a joke. Clinical trials are supposed to be designed to test the safety or efficacy of a drug for a disease. It is almost always the case that clinical trials treat one disease.
The CAN-1 protocol had almost two hundred patients in it and there were at least a dozen different types of cancers being treated. And since all the patients were already on treatment, there could not be any possibility of meaningful data coming out of the so-called clinical trial. It was all an artifice, a vehicle we and the FDA created to legally give the patients Burzynski’s treatment. The FDA wanted all of Burzynski’s patients to be on an IND, so that’s what we did.
The FDA also permitted Burzynski to set up nearly identical phase 2 trials for every cancer that he wanted to treat. Burzynski claimed these were based on a protocol used in a trial done by the National Cancer Institute in the early 1990s when the NCI had tried to work with Burzynski. (This effort failed because of strife between the NCI and Burzynski, who viewed the NCI as trying to sabotage the trial (Smith 1992). These trials had but one purpose, to allow Burzynski to continue treating patients with ANPs (Antineoplaston Anomaly 1998), as Jaffe himself boasted (2008):
CAN-1 allowed Burzynski to treat all his existing patients. That solved the patients’ problems, but not the clinic’s. A cancer clinic cannot survive on existing patients. It needs a constant flow of new patients. So in addition to getting the CAN-1 trial approved, we had to make sure Burzynski could treat new patients. Mindful that he would likely only get one chance to get them approved, Burzynski personally put together seventy-two protocols to treat every type of cancer the clinic had treated and everything Burzynski wanted to treat in the future.
The prosecution thus undermined, the first trial ended in a hung jury in 1997, and a second trial on a subset of the original charges resulted in Burzynski’s acquittal. Since then, Burzynski has practiced (mostly) untroubled by the law, other than intermittent FDA inspections and warning letters. Investigations by the FDA in the 2000s resulted in reports citing Burzynski for failure to report adverse events and to follow proper informed consent procedures and a warning letter (US FDA 2009) citing the Burzynski Research Institute (BRI) IRB for deficiencies such as failing to conduct continuing reviews, approving research without determining whether the risks were reasonable compared to potential benefits, and conflict of interest of IRB members. For example, its chair is an old Burzynski crony from Baylor and the current chair of the board of directors of the BRI, Carlton F. Hazlewood.
Most recently, in response to what is rumored on patient blogs to have been the death of a patient treated with ANPs in 2012, the FDA issued a partial clinical hold on antineoplastons for children, meaning that no new children could be enrolled in Burzynski’s clinical trials; the FDA then extended the hold to adults. The identity of this child was established in a recent investigative article in USA Today to be Josia Cotto (Szabo 2013a). This same article also reported that from January to March 2013, the FDA investigated the Burzynski Clinic. Based on its report (FDA Form 483 2013), the FDA issued a warning letter to the Burzynski Clinic, citing its IRB for, among other violations, enrolling patients in clinical trials without determining that risks to subjects were minimized and were reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits, inappropriately using the expedited review process to treat subjects on single patient protocols, misinterpreting MRI scans to overestimate response to therapy, and destroying original patient records (Szabo 2013a, US FDA 2013b). Until this most recent clinical hold, none of the FDA investigations had stopped Burzynski from “case management fees” of hundreds of thousands of dollars, even though it is generally considered unethical, except in very narrowly defined cases, to charge patients to participate in a clinical trial. It is, however, not illegal.Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski stands with one of his patients outside a courthouse during a demonstration in his support. (Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Enthusiastic support for Burzynski among the alternative cancer cure subculture is all the more puzzling given that what he is really doing is administering unproven chemotherapy at very high doses. This ANP chemotherapy is not without side effects, contrary to claims otherwise. In addition to causing rashes, fevers, and other side effects, ANPs contain so much sodium that they can cause life-threatening elevations of sodium in the blood. Indeed, Josia Cotto died of hypernatremia, with USA Today reporting that he was recorded as having a serum sodium of 205 mEq/L, well into the lethal range (normal is between 135 and 145 mEq/L). Consistent with this, in a June 2013 report on the BBC series Panorama, the chief of the pediatric intensive care unit at nearby Texas Children’s Hospital related her experiences taking care of patients from the Burzynski Clinic suffering life-threatening toxicity from ANP treatment. In the same report, a parent who took her daughter to Texas Children’s Hospital after she had suffered such toxicity reported that the Burzynski Clinic had a very bad reputation there because of the frequency with which they had to care for critically ill and dying Burzynski patients. Despite all the criticism and recent revelations, Burzynski remains combative, referring to his critics as “hooligans” and “hired assassins,” while describing the patients who complain about him thusly: “We see patients from various walks of life. We see great people. We see crooks. We have prostitutes. We have thieves. We have mafia bosses. We have Secret Service agents. Many people are coming to us, OK? Not all of them are the greatest people in the world. And many of them would like to get money from us. They pretend they got sick and they would like to extort money from us” (Szabo 2013a).
Less than a month after the USA Today report, the FDA issued two more warning letters, citing serious violations, including losing patient records, misclassifying tumor responses, failing to report serious adverse reactions, and advertising antineoplastons as safe and effective even though they were unapproved. The FDA even noted that the medical records of Josia Cotto provided to the FDA Division of Medical Products did not match the medical records that the FDA directors on site had examined (Szabo 2013b).
At the close of 2013, Burzynski’s allies were replaying their 1990s strategy by recruiting patients with brain tumors to lobby their legislators and persuade others to do the same, patients such as Liza Covad, the wife of Sammy Hagar’s drummer; McKenzie Lowe, a girl with a brainstem glioma; and Elisha Cohen, a Houston area boy with a brainstem glioma whose plight has rallied the Jewish community, both here and in Israel, to donate to his cause and write to their elected officials to pressure the FDA to allow them to receive ANPs under a compassionate use protocol.
As 2014 dawned, Burzynski had enlisted the Alliance for Natural Health USA, which duly published “action alerts” smearing USA Today and Liz Szabo as in the thrall of pharmaceutical company advertising lucre, insinuating wrongdoing, and trying to rally support to Burzynski patients trying to obtain compassionate use exemptions. Meanwhile, it looks as though the Texas Medical Board will be taking yet another crack at Burzynski in 2014, having filed a complaint in December 2013 charging Burzynski with advertising drugs that are not FDA-approved.But What about the ‘Miracles’?
Patients are drawn to the Burzynski Clinic by reports of “miracle cures,” and over the years Burzynski has specialized in treating unresectable brain tumors. Indeed, the Burzynski Patient Group, created in the 1990s, features a website chock full of testimonials of patients with “incurable” cancer who are alive today. Burzynski and his ANPs are, of course, touted as the reason. There can be several reasons why these testimonials are not convincing evidence that antineoplastons cured these patients. For example, many of these patients have had conventional surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, and it was the conventional therapy that eliminated the tumor. Also, contrary to popular belief, there are occasional survivors of brain cancer. In some cases, it is not clear whether the patient actually had cancer in the first place. In still others, patients have died, but their deaths are not as well known as their testimonials. One famous example occurred in 1988, when television talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael featured four Burzynski “miracle” patients, who had incurable cancer and failed conventional therapies but claimed that Burzynski had rendered them cancer-free. Four years later, Inside Edition followed up on these four patients and found that two of the four had died and a third had recurred, while the fourth had originally had a good prognosis. A more recent Burzynski failure is Christina Lanzoni, who was the sister of model and actor Fabio Lanzoni. At her brother’s urging, she sought care at the Burzynski Clinic for advanced ovarian cancer and died in September 2013. Fabio himself has appeared in YouTube videos extolling Burzynski as a “medical genius.”
Finally, one potential explanation for some of these seemingly miraculous responses to ANP therapy in brain cancers could come from a phenomenon known as pseudoprogression in which late effects of radiation therapy can produce enhancing lesions that mimic tumor recurrence on brain MRI (Stuplich 2012) and which can occur as much as 28 percent of the time after radiation therapy (Brandes et al. 2008). Such pseudoprogression “tumors” regress over the course of weeks to months, much as “recurrences” treated by Burzynski almost inevitably regress, and pseudoprogression can even persist as long as a year after radiation therapy (Stuplich 2012). While it must be conceded that it is possible that in some patients ANPs might exhibit antitumor effects, the more plausible and parsimonious explanation is that pseudoprogression likely explains many of Burzynski “miracle cures.”‘Personalized, Gene-Targeted Cancer Therapy’ and Beyond
Burzynski is currently permitted to administer antineoplastons to existing patients, but until the FDA rules based on its most recent investigation he is not permitted to enroll new patients in ANP clinical trials. Perhaps seeing the end in sight for ANPs, over the last several years Burzynski has been “diversifying,” in particular treating patients with a protocol he refers to as “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy” (Somers 2009; Gorski 2011). He has even gone so far as to declare himself a “pioneer” in personalized cancer therapy (Burzynski 2012; Somers 2009). Eric Merola, picking up on this, portrayed Burzynski as such a pioneer in targeted therapy that the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has emulated him with its Institute of Personalized Cancer Therapy, a claim so overblown as to defy belief.
What Burzynski really does has little to do with research or cutting edge cancer therapy. In 2011, I investigated what Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted therapy” entailed. The spokesperson confirmed what I had learned from patient blogs, namely that he has used a commercial test from Caris Life Sciences, which involves various assays of the patient’s tumor and blood plus a gene expression profile of the tumor, and then generates a report of which cancer-associated genes are made by the tumor. For each gene, where applicable, there is a list of drugs that either target that gene or whose antitumor activity correlates with the presence of that gene. More recently, the Burzynski Clinic touts its involvement with a registry study through Foundation One (FMI-001-NGS-500), a company that markets another gene test consisting of a subset of cancer-associated genes, implying that the Burzynski Clinic uses this company’s products now.
The problem for cancer clinicians is what to do with these results. What Burzynski claims to be able to do is to use this information to pick a combination of treatments that he can administer at low dose and much less toxicity than conventional chemotherapy. Frequently, these agents haven’t been tested together, and the potential for synergistic toxicity is unknown. To apply results like this to patients outside the context of a clinical trial is hard to justify except in rare cases, but that’s exactly what Burzynski has done with large numbers of his patients, picking off-label chemotherapeutic agents based on the results of this test and selling it as “personalized gene-targeted therapy” without letting patients know that (1) the relevance of these recommendations is often debatable; (2) the studies used to support them have a lot of uncertainty; (3) few of these recommendations have yet been validated in clinical trials; and (4) it has not yet been shown that using the Caris test or similar tests to direct therapy results in prolonged survival.
After four decades, Stanislaw Burzynski remains an example of a practitioner using unproven cancer “cures” continuously without being shut down for a long period. There is little doubt that Burzynski started out trying to be a real scientist, but something happened in the mid-1970s that led him away from the path of responsible science and medicine. Unfortunately, he remains very good at donning the mantle of science to make it appear as though his therapy represents a reasonable alternative to chemotherapy. Even more amazingly, because of his battles with the FDA and Texas Medical Board, he has become a hero in the alternative cancer world, even though ANPs are toxic chemotherapy and his “gene-targeted” therapy is a cocktail of chemotherapies and very expensive targeted agents combined in untested combinations.
Truly, antineoplastons demonstrate the importance of science-based medicine. If Burzynski had “played by the rules” and methodically taken ANPs through the clinical trial process, he (and we) would have known decades ago whether ANPs have significant anticancer activity in humans. In 2014, we still don’t know for sure, although what we do know strongly suggests that ANPs have little or no anticancer activity. Finally, Burzynski’s story is a cautionary tale of just how ineffectual the medical and government agencies that are supposed to protect the public, such as state medical boards and the FDA, can be. These organizations are supposed to protect the public from practitioners like Burzynski, but all too often they fail at their charges, in this case spectacularly.References
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———. 2012. Stanislaw R. Burzynski, MD, PhD: Novel cancer research and the fight to prove its worth. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 18(3): 54–61.
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Gorski, D.H. 2011. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer? Science-Based Medicine. Available at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/stanislaw-burzynskis-personalized-gene-targeted-cancer-therapy/.
———. 2012. Stanislaw Burzynski gets off on a technicality. Respectful Insolence (November 26). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/11/26/significance-of-the-tmb-dismissal-case-against-burzynski/.
———. 2013a. Burzynski: Cancer is a serious business, part 2: Like the first Burzynski movie, only more so? Science-Based Medicine. Available at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/burzynski-cancer-is-a-serious-business-part-2-like-the-first-burzynski-movie-only-more-so/.
———. 2013b. Eric Merola and Stanislaw Burzynski’s secret weapon against The Skeptics™: Fabio Lanzoni (Part 2). Respectful Insolence (May 8). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/05/08/eric-merola-and-stanislaw-burzynskis-secret-weapon-against-the-skeptics-fabio-lanzoni-part-2/.
———. 2013c. A study of antineoplastons fails to be published. Stanislaw Burzynski’s propagandist Eric Merola whines about it. News at 11. Respectful Insolence (August 8). Available at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2013/08/12/antineoplaston-fails-publication/.
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———. 2001. Stanislaw Burzynski and “Antineoplastons.” Quackwatch. Available at http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/Cancer/burzynski1.html.
Jaffe, R.A. 2008. The Burzynski wars. In Galileo’s Lawyer: Courtroom Battles in Alternative Health, Complementary Medicine, and Experimental Treatments. Thumbs UP Press: Houston, p. 37–134.
Merola, E. 2010. Letter from G. Earnest Caldwell (attorney) to Stanislaw Burynski, dated June 21, 1977: Use of Antineoplastons in Medical Practice. Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business Film Series 2010. Available at http://www.burzynskimovie.com/images/stories/transcript/Documents/1977-06-21CaldwellandBaggott.pdf.
———. 2013. FABIO | Burzynski: Part 2 Q&A | Apr. 27, 2013 Cancer Is Serious Business | Eric Merola - YouTube. Burzynski The Movie YouTube Channel 2013. Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuNr06BuXkk&feature=share&list=UULiRbQrj-gBow6VdLajWxaw.
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———. 2013b. Antineoplastons (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute 2013 4/9/2013. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/antineoplastons/healthprofessional.
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Szabo, Liz. 2013a. Doctor accused of selling false hope to families. USA Today (November 15).
———. 2013b. FDA issues warning to controversial Houston cancer doctor. USA Today (December 11). Available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/11/fda-issues-warning-to-controversial-houston-cancer-doctor/3990623/.
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More from this issue of Skeptical Inquirer: "Skeptic Activists Fighting for Burzynski’s Cancer Patients" by Robert Blaskiewicz.
A group of skeptical activists has been aggressively investigating and challenging the false claims of the Burzynski clinic and its dubious cancer treatments, presenting reliable information about them online. They even raised funds for a legitimate research hospital.
One of the most frustrating parts of the thirty-five-year saga of Stanislaw Burzynski is the fact that while it is clear to oncologists and researchers that he has engaged in disturbing business and research practices, legal and professional actions taken to correct the situation have uniformly failed to protect patients. Furthermore, the media have almost entirely ignored the “consumer protection” angle of the Burzynski story, instead focusing largely on “human interest” stories about patients desperately raising vast sums of money on apparently unpublishable clinical trials. (For background information on Burzynski and his claims, see David H. Gorski’s article “Stanislaw Burzynski: Four Decades of an Unproven Cancer Cure” in this issue.)
While skeptics cannot perform the protective and punitive roles that regulators and courts have been unable to serve, we can step up and do the investigating, reporting, and editorializing that the media have failed to do. A concerted, sustained effort to do just that began in November 2011, after bloggers Rhys Morgan, Andy Lewis, Peter Bowditch, Popehat, and others received pseudolegal threats from the Clinic’s representative, Marc Stephens, a web reputation manager with no legal qualifications. Stephens was sacked when the international media started writing about the story, but over the past year and a half, a core group of about a dozen skeptics have put ever-increasing pressure on the Burzynski Clinic by challenging its false claims whenever they appear online and by promoting reliable information about Burzynski’s cancer treatments in ways that are search-engine savvy.1
Just as interest in the Clinic’s bullying tactics seemed to be waning, in mid-June 2012, the Burzynski affair flared up again. This time, blogger Keir Liddel noticed that a server that hosted several websites of Marc Stephens also hosted jamesrandiusa.org, a new site devoted entirely to smearing skeptics who had been critical of Burzynski (myself included) as pedophiles.2 Burzynski was on the minds of several skeptics, then, during The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 2012 skeptics’ conference that July. There we met Shane Greenup, the developer of rbutr, a browser plugin that adds a layer of meta-commentary to the Internet by linking web pages to rebuttals. I wanted to use this new tool against Burzynski’s propaganda machine.
Among Burzynski’s most fervent promoters is animator Eric Merola, who released a 2010 movie called Burzynski: Cancer is a Serious Business, a conspiracy-tinged hagiography “exposing” Big Pharma and the FDA trying to suppress a cure for cancer, tracing Burzynski’s legal battles, and exploiting patients who believe that Burzynski cured them. The film received almost no attention whatsoever before March 2011, when TV’s Dr. Oz interviewed Burzynski and Merola on his radio show and über-crank Joe Mercola promoted it on his website. From that point on, it seemed to be how most people heard of the Burzynski Clinic. When I returned from TAM, I used rbutr to link Dr. David Gorski’s in-depth review of the movie to every single copy I could find on the Internet, over one hundred of them up to this point.3
Before TAM, the skeptics who were fighting Burzynski had simply been online acquaintances, but shortly thereafter they initiated the first coordinated attempt to draw attention to Burzynski’s pseudoscience by preparing a protest at the clinic. An online group was established on Facebook to put together an effective demonstration, but because cancer patients going to the clinic had enough on their plates without being protested at, we soon decided that we’d protest the Burzynski Clinic by raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. We sought to raise $30,000, the cost of starting one of Burzynski’s clinical trials of antineoplastons, and we chose to do it by Dr. Burzynski’s seventieth birthday, January 23, 2013. A website, thehoustoncancerquack.com, was set up by the new Facebook group, The Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients (SPCP), to serve as a hub for the protests. The SPCP compiled a suite of resources and links for people who wanted to draw attention to the skeptics’ concerns about the Clinic; these resources included guidelines written up by Tim Farley for elbowing reliable information about clinical trials into Burzynski’s Google search results.4
About two weeks before Burzynski’s birthday, writer PZ Myers announced the campaign on his blog, and the fundraising began.5 James Randi Educational Foundation staff members (especially Brian Thompson and Carrie Poppy) informally advised the campaign. Brian devoted an episode of Consequence to the issue,6 and James Randi, a cancer survivor himself, shared his experiences and spoke up about Burzynski and his ilk on an episode of The Randi Show.7 Rebecca Watson and the Skepchicks led a fundraising team with Rhys Morgan. Journalist and breast cancer patient Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing covered the fundraiser. A number of prominent skeptics, including Harriet Hall, Blake Smith, Ben Radford, and Kylie Sturgess, auctioned off skeptical swag on eBay to raise money for the effort. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe devoted a segment to the protest, while Richard Saunders ran promo spots for the fundraiser on The Skeptic Zone, and Kylie Sturgess’s Token Skeptic devoted an episode to the topic. Innumerable skeptics donated time, talent, and money, and on Burzynski’s birthday, they delivered to the clinic via certified mail a challenge to match their $14,700 donation to St. Jude. They also sent Burzynski a birthday card. He declined to meet the challenge.A demonstration in support of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his antineoplastons cancer treatment drug. (Jerzy Dabrowski/ZUMAPRESS.com)
At about the same time, a handful of skeptics started a new website, The Other Burzynski Patient Group (TOBPG). One of the most successful recruiting tools the clinic benefits from is the constellation of former and current patients who support the Clinic. (The Clinic seems to distribute the contact information of these supporters to prospective patients.) Many of these patients are members of the Burzynski Patient Group, where these patients, most of them alive, share their stories of triumph over cancer. TOBPG, in contrast, collects the stories of the patients who did not make it. At present, they have gathered over 550 names of such deceased patients, of which approximately sixty have already been fully researched, written up, and published.8
Originally, the idea behind TOBPG was to offer balance to the overly optimistic enthusiasm of the Burzynski Patient Group; we felt it was important that desperate and vulnerable patients encounter something other than uncritical praise of Burzynski. However, the project took on an unexpected importance when a number of disturbing patterns in the patient stories started to emerge. Patients like Denise D., Kathy B., and Supatra A.’s father reported odd billing practices. A far more disturbing pattern emerged after skeptics brought the case of Amelia S. to the attention of oncologist David Gorski. The parents of Amelia, a little girl with an inoperable, almost universally fatal brain tumor, ecstatically reported online that the center of her tumor was “breaking down.” Gorski pointed out that this pattern was far more likely to indicate that the tumor was outgrowing its blood supply, not a sign that treatment was working.9 Amelia died a few weeks later.
Taken by itself, Amelia’s MRI results might have been an anomaly, a one-off misreading of a scan, but when it was put in the context of other patients’ stories, something frankly horrifying began to emerge: a pattern of patients (or their parents) reporting that signs of getting worse were symptoms of improvement, often keeping patients on Burzynski’s treatment longer than they might otherwise decide to be. In fact, out of the first sixty patients written up, no fewer than seven over a period spanning decades excitedly reported that their tumors were “breaking up in the middle,” and many more reported that they were told their worsening symptoms were signs of getting better. When one considers that skeptics have written up only a tenth of the names they have found, and that those in total represent a tiny fraction of the patients who have been treated at the Clinic mostly in the last decade, and that the Clinic has been operating for over thirty-five years, the magnitude of what that place might ultimately represent becomes clear.
At the same time that the Burzynski Birthday Bash was coming together and the websites were going up, patients who felt they had been wronged by the Clinic started reaching out to the bloggers who were writing about Burzynski. Among these patients was Wayne Merritt, one of Burzynski’s former pancreatic cancer patients, who was threatened with legal action—called repeatedly at home no less—by not-a-lawyer Marc Stephens.10 A number of these patients did not know how to seek redress or who to complain to; others simply wanted to share their stories and warn other patients. Skeptics put these patients in contact with one another, with the proper regulatory authorities, and with people who would be able to help them with legal problems stemming from their dealings with the Clinic. We’ve also reached out to patients who have expressed displeasure to let them know that they are not alone. We’ve also established good relationships with the Clinic’s former employees, upon whom we have relied for putting new information in context. Knowing that most patients who have decided to fundraise for Burzynski will be unlikely to be dissuaded from seeing him, we developed a patient protection checklist for them with tips about documenting their entire experience at the Clinic.11This screenshot from the Burzynski Patient Group’s Facebook page shows one of the doctors at the clinic posting a patients lab results, a clear violation of HIPAA.
One of the most important things skeptics have been doing has been monitoring the Clinic’s public activities on a day-to-day basis and taking appropriate action when events warrant. For instance, when one of the physicians at the Clinic appeared to post a patient’s lab results on the Burzynski Patient Group’s Facebook page, skeptics grabbed a screenshot (Figure 1) and sent it to the Texas Medical Board to be evaluated as a possible federal HIPAA violation. (Shortly thereafter the patient group blocked all non-members from its page, effectively eliminating another avenue of misinformation.) Another important action skeptics have taken is to monitor the FDA’s interactions with the Clinic and to make sure that government agencies that might not be talking to one another are alerted to developments at the Clinic. At the beginning of 2013, the FDA was on the premises for several weeks reviewing Burzynski’s clinical trials. When the FDA released the relevant Form 483s (preliminary observations to which the Clinic has a right to respond before any further action is taken), skeptics had them immediately and were horrified by what they read. The inspectors found that the Clinic’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), among other things:
• . . . used an expedited review procedure for research which did not appear in an FDA list of categories eligible for expedited review, and which had not previously been approved by the IRB.
• . . . approved the conduct of research, but did not determine that the risks to subjects were reasonable in relation to the anticipated benefits (if any) to subjects, and to the importance of the knowledge that might be expected to result.
• [And that a] list of IRB members has not been prepared and maintained, identifying members by name, earned degrees, representative capacity, and any employment or other relationship between each member and the institution.12
Skeptics forwarded all of the currently available Form 483s to the Texas Medical Board, who seems to have opened a new investigation on the basis of these observations. If and when warning letters are released, copies will be sent to the Texas Medical Board and to other professional, state, and federal authorities who might have an interest in seeing such information.
An important development came when Simon Singh contacted the BBC investigative news program Panorama and interested them in the story of the Clinic. Numerous skeptics, including Rhys Morgan, David Gorski, the blogger known as Josephine Jones, and me, were interviewed by phone in the winter and spring, and we put the producers in contact with Wayne Merritt and answered questions relating to the treatment, the patients, and the Clinic. The half-hour episode aired on June 3, 2013, and while some crucial relevant elements—such as the smears and threats leveled against the Merritts and bloggers—were left unaddressed, as well as the decades of suspicious reports from patients, there was no doubt on the show’s Twitter stream that viewers were outraged by Burzynski and the fact that he has been allowed to extract money from the dying for so long.13 Even papers in the United Kingdom that had previously advertised fundraisers to send desperate patients to Burzynski revisited the story and informed readers that the patients who they’ve sent to Burzynski feel like they were “misled.”14
Skeptics also attended every North American pre-release screening of Eric Merola’s sequel about Burzynski, where they took copious notes, usually asked challenging questions, and generally gleaned useful information not only about the movie itself but also about the perspectives and activism of Burzynski’s supporters. This allowed skeptics with more experience with Burzynski’s shenanigans to prepare rather detailed responses to the movie even before it was widely available. At one of these showings, the director mentioned that members of the Burzynski Patient Group were preparing to launch a public awareness campaign called “ANP for All.” Skeptics immediately scooped up the Facebook page and Twitter feeds, as well as the URLs ANP4all.com and ANP4all.org, effectively hobbling the launch of that misguided venture. The replacement site, iwantanp.org, is now trademarked.
The results of this ongoing, ever-intensifying skeptical campaign are not yet complete. In its first year, The Other Burzynski Patient Group has surpassed the number of stories that it took Burzynski nearly forty years to accumulate. The same bloggers and activists who have worked the Burzynski story so hard for the last year and a half have no intention of letting up, and new tales from the Clinic come to us daily.15 Last, and most crucial, the Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients are using a November 15 exposé of the Burzynski Clinic on the front page of USA Today and the recently released results of an abysmal site review by the FDA (and the subsequent warning letters) as an opportunity to press Congress to investigate how Burzynski managed to secure permission for phase III clinical trials without having ever published a single phase II trial. The SPCP encourages all skeptics to visit thehoustoncancerquack.com to find out how to lobby their representatives most effectively.
Burzynski’s supporters have publicly wondered whether Burzynski should leave the United States. A recent SEC filing reported that patient visits were down in the past year, an encouraging sign, to be sure.16 Nonetheless, these efforts have not been without some consequences for the skeptics involved. Skeptics have been so effective that Eric Merola’s most recent Burzynski hagiography spends a lot of screen time demonizing critics. Burzynski’s supporters have contacted our employers, have complained to state licensing boards, and defamed a number of us publicly. We are fully aware that when the Clinic dismissed Marc Stephens that it pointedly failed to retract the possibility of lawsuits against critics, a threat that hangs over all of these activists every day. If skeptics’ concerns are founded, however, the risks to activists pale in comparison to the risks already posed to those patients on whose behalf we are working.Notes
1. By far the most comprehensive online resource regarding Burzynski’s career and practice is maintained by the blogger known as Josephine Jones at http://bit.ly/sDYDRg.
2. Hill, Sharon. 2012. “Vicious Web Site Attacks Prominent Skeptic James Randi and Others.” Doubtfulnews.com (June12). Available at http://bit.ly/14ECsVn.
3. Greenup, Shane. 2013. “Our First Rebuttal to Reach 100 Rebuttings!” Rbutr.com (May 4). Available at http://blog.rbutr.com/2013/05/our-first-rebuttal-to-reach-100-rebuttings/.
4. These search engine optimization strategies, skeptics’ most powerful tool of combating misinformation, may be found at http://bit.ly/18NXNxJ.
5. Myers, P.Z. 2013. “Let’s Make Houston Cancer Quack Burzynski Pay!” Pharyngula (January 6). Available at http://bit.ly/UZ0XYc.
6. Thompson, Brian. 2013. “The Burzynski Clinic.” Consequence: True Stories About False Things (January 14). Available at http://bit.ly/VFVbLo.
7. “The Burzynski Clinic and Cancer Quacks.” 2013. The Randi Show. (January 11). Available at http://bit.ly/19R9Mvd.
8. Among the most revealing patient stories at theotherburzynskipatientgroup.wordpress.com are those of Amelia S. (http://bit.ly/1aVX1LI), Denise D. (http://bit.ly/12quzSf), and Chase S. (http://bit.ly/16SgNv2).
9. Orac. 2012. “More Sad News About a Burzynski Patient.” Respectful Insolence (December 12). Available at http://bit.ly/ZgXsyI.
10. “Cancer Patients Threatened.” 2012. The Other Burzynski Patient Group (June 3). Available at http://bit.ly/14aTc0Y.
11. “Advice for Burzynski Patients.” n.d. The Other Burzynski Patient Group. Available at http://bit.ly/18NIGnS.
12. “FDA Inspection (FOIA Requests, Feb 2013).” n.d. The Other Burzynski Patient Group. Available at http://bit.ly/16yFNDc.
13. “Cancer: Hope for Sale?” 2013. Panorama (June 3). Available at http://bit.ly/11ruWKJ.
14. “Amelia’s Family ‘Misled by Cancer Clinic.’”2013. Reading Post (June 5). Available at http://bit.ly/1bdQTkV.
15. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the work that the Guerilla Skeptics have done to keep the Wikipedia page about Burzynski up to date and translated into several languages.
16. This filing is publicly available at the SEC website at http://1.usa.gov/1aB1oeT.
More from this issue of Skeptical Inquirer: "Stanislaw Burzynski: Four Decades of an Unproven Cancer Cure" by David H. Gorski.
Skeptics, Humanists Come Together in Tacoma in First Joint Conference
Skepticism, Humanism, or Both?
It was billed as the CFI Summit—An International Congress in the Pacific Northwest, and it was a kind of experiment. “The time has come: humanists, skeptics, and other critical thinkers coming together to work together for a more rational world.” That was the meeting’s call to action, as the first joint conference of the Center for Inquiry and its affiliate organizations, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer) and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH, publisher of Free Inquiry), convened in a stylish, modernist hotel in Tacoma, Washington, October 24–27, 2013. The conference thus included/subsumed what otherwise CSI would have called CSICon 3, following the first CSICon in New Orleans in 2011 and CSICon 2 in Nashville in 2012.
The weather outside was foggy, though the talk inside was anything but, as skeptic and humanist speakers explored all the areas in which their interests and passions overlap, and a few that some may (and others may not) wish to keep separate.
We offer two reports. SI Editor Kendrick Frazier highlights several representative sessions1 that may be of particular interest to SI readers, and skeptic Susan Gerbic offers a more personal, impressionistic account of the conference.
The opening plenary session, “Humanism, Skepticism, and Inquiry,” was a theme of much of the conference and the point of continuing discussion throughout. Is it about time the two major arms of the Center for Inquiry—skeptics with their love of science and evidence-based inquiry and humanists with their naturalistic philosophy and distrust of religious intrusions in public life—come together, at least once a year, in a conference like this? Or are there still good reasons that the two groups keep their own separate conferences?
If you drew two circles representing the interests and values of members of the two groups, they’d probably overlap by about two-thirds or three-fourths. But the overlap isn’t total. Philosopher Paul Kurtz, who founded CSI and CSH, considered both organizations and their missions equally important. Yet while he himself embraced all their values and goals in one over-arching personal philosophy, he, for various practical reasons, including the wishes of many members, kept the two organizations and their conferences separate, with the later-created Center for Inquiry as mainly a logistical and administrative connective.Panelists in the opening session on “Humanism, Skepticism, and Inquiry” take questions. (Photo: Brian Engler)
Ronald A. Lindsay, now the CEO and president of all three organizations, opened the plenary session with an explication of what they all have in common: a commitment to critical thinking and a conviction that beliefs should not outstrip the evidence. He suggested that there are no irreconcilable differences between skepticism and humanism. “They are compatible. . . .We need to examine all things carefully and go where the evidence takes us. That unifies us.”
Ray Hyman and Daniel Loxton took a contrary view. Hyman, a founding Fellow of CSICOP (now CSI), said, “The real problem is the perception.” He referred to a sometimes “uneasy tension” between the skeptics and humanists and an early concern in the organizations’ histories in which skeptics became upset at what they considered “religion bashing” by some humanists and some humanists became upset at what they considered skeptics’ bashing of parapsychology. In Hyman’s recollection this led to Kurtz’s determination to keep the two groups’ conferences separate. Hyman also noted that in the skeptic movement a lot of people can be at least somewhat religious and still good scientific skeptics. “Skeptics are more inclusive by nature,” he said. “It’s probably not a good idea to mix these two groups.”
Lindsay quickly emphasized—as did CFI Board Chairman Edward Tabash later in the conference—that CFI doesn’t “bash” religion but examines it. It emphasizes that religion should not have a privileged place in society exempt from critical scrutiny.
Loxton, though, echoed Hyman’s theme. Loxton, editor of the Skeptic Society’s Junior Skeptic and author of several books (including some on evolution), has become a kind of informal historian of the skeptic movement. He says he feels intimately connected to both traditions, skeptic and humanist (he is both). Nevertheless, said Loxton, “I am a CSICOP-style skeptic” and noted that the creation of CSICOP filled a large gap in scholarship. “I care about keeping scientific skepticism unencumbered and independent,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we believe. The question is what we can demonstrate to be so. Skepticism matters.”
Barry Kosmin, founding member of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College (and a board member of all three organizations) described what he calls “The Rising Secular-Skeptic Generation,” based on his national surveys of college students (the latest this summer carried out in collaboration with CFI). The 2013 survey found that only 32 percent of college students self-describe themselves as religious. Twenty-eight percent refer to themselves as secular (males more prominent in this group) and 32 percent as spiritual (females more prominent). His point is that “a large constituency of millions of young people is emerging” favorable to the viewpoints of CFI.Michael De Dora, director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brian Engler)
Michael De Dora, director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC, said he thinks skeptics and humanists can work best together. They have complementary values on many issues, he said. He agreed that CFI presents a bit of a challenge because it is a “mish-mash” of many things, but that can be overcome.
Some other panelists, like Ophelia Benson (an author and Free Inquiry columnist) and Mark Hatcher (CFO of Black Atheists of America) expressed impatience with the whole debate. Instead of emphasizing this internal issue, Hatcher urged focusing on a far bigger, external problem, endemic to both groups: “We are terrible at communication.” He said both humanists and skeptics need to take a lesson from the churches. “Churches do things correctly as far as communications. They have found the beat. They have found the rhythm and how the heart works. If you want people engaged, you’ve got to get your finger on the beat. If we do, we have the advantage of actually having facts.”
Bill Cooke, director of CFI’s transnational programs, also spoke out with some impatience. In Kenya and Uganda, where he has worked on behalf of CFI, “there are serious issues of life and death” that involve both parts of the organization, including the skeptic side, such as belief in witchcraft that often leads to murders. “There this issue is irrelevant.”
The discussions continued a while longer in this way, all polite and civil. If any fireworks were expected, none were set off. By conference-end, it seemed most everyone, skeptic or humanist, had learned a little bit about the other’s concerns, and in fact found that their issues tended to blend one in to another in a more or less seamless way.Zack Koplin, Young Education Activist
Zack Koplin is the amazingly dedicated and self-possessed college student from Rice University who as a high school student in Louisiana fought vigorously against efforts to introduce creationist teachings into the schools. He gave an inspiring lecture about his fight for science in Louisiana, Texas, and across the country.
“Louisiana has an addiction to creationism,” he said. The state’s Science Education Act “is so open-ended you can bring anything into it. . . . It’s not about critical thinking. It’s really a creationism law.” Even Governor Bobby Jindal has said it’s about creationism, Koplin said. “It’s crystal clear this is only about teaching creationism.”
In Texas, official reviewers of science textbooks include fellows of the creationist Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research. “The publishers have resisted so far,” said Koplin, but he wasn’t sure whether their resistance would continue to succeed.
The problem in both states is “backwards, antiscience legislators.” Louisiana passed a voucher system that takes money from the public schools and gives it to creationist schools. He said $4 million of public money was taken away that way the first year.
“I want scientists who have been educated well,” Koplin concluded. As for the sometimes nasty attacks he has encountered from creationists, he has endured them, “but sometimes you want to just go to sleep for a week.”Bill Nye, “The Science Guy” Bill Nye delivers the summit’s keynote talk. (Photo: Brian Engler)
At the evening banquet, conference attendees filled the round dinner tables. Looming at the back were four empty rows of folding chairs spanning the entire width of the ballroom. A bad sign? No, as it turned out. As dinner ended and the time neared for Bill Nye’s keynote talk, suddenly the doors at the back opened and in rushed an exuberant crowd of mostly local people, including a fair number of youngsters. The talk had been advertised on the sides of city buses, and outside the banquet hall CFI sold tickets for just his talk. (He was still in a leg brace from his Dancing with the Stars appearances, and it was now just a few days before his November 7 appearance on a typically witty episode of the CBS television comedy The Big Bang Theory pitting Bill Nye “The Science Guy” against Bob Newhart as “Dr. Proton.”)
Nye’s was a rousing talk, roaming over how we determined the age of the Earth at 4.6 billion years (“Why then try to pretend the Earth is 10,000 years old? Amazing!”), the makeup of the universe (“90 percent hydrogen, 8 percent helium, 2 percent ‘everything-
elsium’”), the fragility of the atmosphere, our spacecraft now soaring on beyond the edge of the solar system, and some of our external views of Earth from distant space. All this led to a passionate advocacy for interest in science and science education. And that led in turn to Nye’s frequently repeated mantra: “We can change the world!” By midway through his talk the audience was thoroughly with him. Their chants “We can change the world” reverberated along with his.
Example: “If we can harness the energy of young people and get them passionate about science, it is reasonable to think that we can . . . change the world!”
“It is with great joy and reverence and passion that I talk about the impact of science education.” He ended by showing the Cassini spacecraft’s new view of Earth from beyond Saturn as a tiny dot barely visible in the distance far past Saturn’s rings, an outside-in view of the solar system that provides sobering cosmic perspective. “We are a speck on a speck, orbiting a speck.” But by our experiencing “the passion and joy and beauty of science . . . we can change the world!”
There followed an especially lively Q&A period. Most all the questions came from the newly arrived audience members, and two nearly moved Bill Nye to tears by their stories of how he has inspired them to pursue a lifetime interest in science. Said one person: “You have been a major influence to me personally. Thank you for being who you are.”
“I have tried to influence young people,” Nye said. “The scientific method is the best idea humans ever had.”
It should be easy to draw people in, he added, because science deals with some of humanity’s most profound questions. Among them: “Where did we come from?” and “Are we alone?”
“We are made of stars,” he concluded. “If that doesn’t fill you with some sort of joy . . . I don’t believe it!”Leonard Mlodinow and New Point of Inquiry Hosts Josh Zepps interviews Leonard Mlodinow on a live edition of Point of Inquiry. (Photo: Brian Engler)
Physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow (author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, winner of CSI’s 2008 Balles Prize for critical thinking) gave a lecture presentation on the topic of his new book, Subliminal: How Your Mind Rules Your Behavior. He presented recent research from cognitive psychology and the new field of social neuroscience about the automatic aspects of our consciousness, which happen without our awareness or intention.
“Our perceptions, memories, and social judgments are all constructed by our unconscious, from limited data,” said Mlodinow. Even with just perception, it is a process of construction. “Your retina sees things fuzzily and incomplete”—he showed examples from experiments. “Your brain sharpens and fills in. Your unconscious mind does this for you, and it’s a great gift.”
This happens with hearing as well. He played the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” backward. You seem to hear “Satan” three times and also “666”—if that is suggested to you. Similar things happen with all our other senses (experiments show how a light touch can create a sense of trust and even lead to higher tips to waitresses). Memory is of course a reconstructive process as well. “Just like vision, your brain takes the gist of memory and reconstructs it.”
He described how we all do what psychologists call motivated reasoning. “We look for data that supports what we want to believe.” This explains why people can come to vastly different judgments even when the factual evidence before them is the same. “They’ve generally sincerely judged the evidence differently—it’s unconscious.”The new Point of Inquiry team: Lindsay Beyerstein, producer Joshua Billingsley, and Josh Zepps. (Photo: Brian Engler)
Laboratory tests show these processes in various ways. Experiments, for example, show that in elections, seventy percent of the candidates judged to be “more competent looking” won.
At the end of that afternoon, Mlodinow was back on stage. The occasion this time was the first interview (and before a large live audience) with the new cohosts of CFI’s weekly Point of Inquiry podcast, Josh Zepps and Lindsay Beyerstein. An Australian, Zepps joins the CFI podcast as a founding host and producer at online talk network HuffPost Live, after hosting stints with Bloomberg TV, the Discovery Channel, and as anchor for CBS’s Peabody Award–winning Channel One News. Zepps conducted the interview with Mlodinow, who got the chance to expand some about the fact that most of our thinking comes from the unconscious and about motivated reasoning (“thinking like a lawyer, not a scientist.”)
The other cohost, Lindsay Beyerstein, is an investigative journalist and staff writer for In These Times. Longtime SI readers will remember her late father, psychologist and CSI Fellow and Executive Council member Barry Beyerstein. She interviewed conference lunch speaker Katherine Stewart (author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children) on religious extremism and how the Christian right has managed to gain so much influence actually operating in public schools. These two interviews are online at www.pointofinquiry.org.Note
1. Noteworthy skeptic-related sessions I’ve not reported on here include Eugenie C. Scott’s lecture presentation on science education, “Keeping the Good Stuff In”; Scott Lilienfeld’s lecture presentation on the subject of his book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (topic of our November/December 2013 cover article); the pre-conference Skeptics Mini-Toolbox workshop (Ray Hyman, Harriet Hall, and Loren Pankratz); and a Skeptical Breakout session I moderated on “Skeptical Investigation and Activism” (Joe Nickell, Benjamin Radford, James Underdown, and Susan Gerbic).
Back from the CFI Summit, I am completely impressed. Not only was there no obvious twerking, but there was no drama, and in our tight little community of scientific skeptics that is a wonderful thing. I will say very little here about the lectures, as I didn’t really attend them. My agenda was not passive; I went to network and recruit people to join my Skeptic Action and GSoW projects (Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, see SI Interview, March/April 2012).
The Summit was the same week as Halloween. For years now I have been saying I will dress up “next year,” and when that year arrives it doesn’t seem to happen. Now I’m bald from the chemo killing my breast cancer and felt that finally “next year” was “this year.” So I went all out: I changed costumes twice a day. Cleopatra, Medusa, Che Guevara, and many, many odd hats. For the costume party I was a phrenology dummy. Susi Beyerstein, Jeanine DeNorma, and Herb Masters had the honor of drawing the wonders of the brain all over my head in eyeliner. I took second prize (best skeptical costume, though). The cleverness from our community to come up with great skeptical costumes was really delightful.Susan Gerbic gives activism instruction to Jeff and Jon Taylor-Kantz, Suzi Beyerstein, and Ray Hyman. (Photo by James Underdown)
I wasn’t sure what my reception would be; since I was a speaker, should I reflect a more professional attitude? Well, it isn’t every day you get a pass to blame everything on the chemo, so I just went with it, and no one cared. In fact it was extra wonderful. CFI was more than helpful—Wi-Fi, food, electricity at a free table. The general attendees loved the outfits and hats. All day, every day people came over to talk about what I was wearing. The mood was great; so many people were attending their first skeptic/humanist conference, and they were excited to be able to see fun like-minded people who wanted to meet them also. Not only was this happening in their backyard (the Pacific Northwest), but the quality of the speakers, great food, Wi-Fi, and tables in the lecture room really spoiled them. The Hotel Murano was a lovely place, glass art everywhere, just like staying in an art museum.
My goal was to hang out with attendees, network, photograph, and recruit. I was also able to spend quality time with many people teaching them how to use Web of Trust and Rbutr and to edit Wikipedia for skeptical activism, which is my specialty. Because of my unique position, I was able to listen, observe, and talk about the event with lots of people. Now, after some reflection, I would like to share my opinion on the big question organizations like CFI want an answer to.
In many quarters there seems to be an attitude that humanism and skepticism should be kept separate. We are too different and don’t understand why “they” would be interested in what they are doing, when what “we” are doing is so much more important. The general opinions are that skeptics are naysayers and “Bigfoot skeptics.” All that nonsense has been long ago debunked so why should anyone care anymore? And humanists (also called atheists) are too focused on social issues, don’t follow the scientific method, and believe all kinds of antiscience things (Bill Maher is an example).
The theme of the CFI Summit this year was to open this debate and hope to come up with some kind of answer. After all, times are tough, we have to watch our dollars, and if thousands were attending these conferences and all seats were filled, then I’m sure the separate conferences would happen. We could even throw conferences focused on specific topics like UFOs, atheism, medical quacks, and so on, but at the moment we don’t have that luxury. So how do we best spend our conference dollars?Jeanine DeNorma and Suzi Beyerstein turn Susan into a phrenology dummy for the Halloween costume contest. (Photo by Herb Masters)
Clearly, I did hear lots of people (usually first time conference attendees) state that they were attending an atheist conference. Some people said they were telling their families that they were attending a science conference, because I suppose they wanted to avoid backlash. For two hours on Thursday there were competing workshops, one on “Atheism and Naturalism” and the other on a “Skeptic’s Toolbox.” On Friday I was part of a panel that discussed investigation and activism, while in a different area the humanists discussed measuring unbelief. The rest of the conference we all met together in one big room with various topics, scientific as well as humanist.
Here is what I discovered. The initial opinion from the skeptics, that the humanists were not interested in scientific skepticism and that they held antiscience opinions, was unfounded. I never once heard a humanist with this opinion. They seemed just as interested in psychics and medical quackery as any skeptic. And while the skeptics might have felt a bit hurt that there were more antireligion type lectures at the conference, they were happy to join in the conversations once they attended, the exception being when the lecture seemed angry or ranting about religion. Some of the lectures were difficult to decide what camp they fell into. Eugenie Scott and Zack Kopplin’s lectures about creationism in the classroom and legislature were common ground. Katherine Stewart’s research into the Good News Clubs in America was also gripping for both groups. There were also lectures discussing legislation as well as psychology of belief, important topics to understanding what we are up against. Topics like creationism in the schools and antiscience medical claims hit home to both camps.
Many good points were made, one of which is that on college campuses today, atheism is hot, and we should be emphasizing this while they are interested. Another point made was that sometimes more doors will open when we are focused on science and not religion. Schools are more likely to allow in a skeptic group than an antireligion one. Debbie Goddard stated the obvious when we were discussing leaving CFI magazines in public places for people to find. She said she suspects that more people are likely to pick up a magazine on ghosts or vampires to browse through, than an issue devoted to humanism. Possibly it is just easier to use science and skepticism to start the discussion with people. And that is what we are trying to do after all: start a discussion.Learn to edit Wikipedia with Medusa. (Photo by Brian Engler)
I’ve learned that some churches are using cryptozoology as real to disprove evolution. What happens to that theory when the child looks up Nessie on Wikipedia and discovers that Mom and Dad have that all wrong, and find that “Evidence of its existence is anecdotal”? Followed with plenty of citations that child can follow to the investigations and evidence our skeptic community has left there for them to find? This is why people start questioning their religion, small questions that start a snowball of questions. This is what happened to me. But didn’t I say earlier that people aren’t interested in Bigfoot skepticism? Someone should tell the 87,841 people who visited the Loch Ness page last month that no one cares about that stuff anymore.
I totally understand that religion is hot news right now. (When has it not been lately?) It seems like you can almost draw a line from most social problems back to people’s unquestioning belief in something that has no scientific basis to it. They cling and fight to hold tight those tenets. We have to find lots of ways to have these conversations. Brian Dunning from the Skeptoid podcast tells us that maybe the best way to have these uncomfortable discussions is to find a topic you both can agree on and work your way to the hot topic when you are ready. Talk about what evidence means, how to question something correctly, just keep talking and listening to each other.
On the thirty-minute van ride back to the airport I think the point was much clearer. Joe Nickell, Leonard Tramiel, and I totally engaged the four strangers also traveling with us. We had great conversations about Bigfoot and UFOs and what evidence means. They were thrilled to hear stories about Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We were the cool kids in that van, and when the city bus rolled by with Bill Nye and the CFI Summit advertisement on it we were beyond the cool club. One woman said, “I wanna hang out with you guys.” I suspect we would not have had the same reception if we were talking about religion. Yet, if we had the time, the conversation might have gone in that direction. And they would have been more receptive to it if done in that order.
So back to CFI’s theme this year. Can we find common ground in our community? Should we combine conferences at least until the time we have grown so large we are holding them in mega-church halls? My opinion is that we have to work together. We overlap so much and we are such a small community in comparison to others. We need to find a way to respect each other’s passions, and talk to each other, not tweet at each other when we have a complaint. Face-to-face contact at these conferences is very important. The networking, training, and bouncing of ideas off each other is what is needed. Yes, we have to continue to grow and grow and grow. But first we need to start thinking of ways to stay together and find the common ground. Then maybe we can start making more efficient progress.
Yes, conferences might lose money. It’s difficult to find the right formula in the right location at the right time of the year. And what works this year might not the next. I doubt we are clever enough to figure it out. What I do know is that the one-on-one contact recharges our batteries. People like Harriet Hall (Skepdoc), Lindsay Beyerstein (cohost of Point of Inquiry), and myself came from CSI’s Skeptic’s Toolbox. We weren’t primarily authors or lecturers, just people with a passion for the skeptical movement who decided it was our turn to step up. You can’t buy that fire, but sometimes you might have to kick the embers to keep us (and others) out there fighting what seems to be an insurmountable world of woo. Conferences are essential.
Oh yeah, a couple more things, at the end of every lecture the same question came up. What can I do to help? The main answer we heard was “give money.” Very little happens without money; apparently it is pretty powerful. Besides that, pay attention to your local elections, especially school boards where your vote can make a big difference. And the most obvious activism advice was to follow Skeptic Action on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ and join the GSoW team.
Here are the remarks by CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay at the CFI Summit in Tacoma presenting the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Eugenie C. Scott.
Where would we be without Eugenie Scott?
This is a serious question. The struggle for the integrity of science education in the United States, especially in regard to the teaching of evolution, has been a grueling slog, a war of attrition. Despite the fact that creationism is an outdated myth, evolution’s opponents have been tenacious, determined, and even at times, clever. With every victory for science and reason, those who want religious indoctrination to be part of our public schools adapt, change their tactics, adjust their language and messaging, and, well, evolve to suit a changing environment.
In other words, no one political or legal win for science spells the end of the creationist assault on education. At least not so far. But we would be in a much worse position if not for Eugenie Scott.
Most of you know about the high profile victories. Perhaps most famously, Dr. Scott was instrumental in the win for science in the Dover Trial, in which intelligent design, a rickety Trojan Horse for creationism, was almost laughed out of the courtroom. But it was Dr. Scott and her team at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) who mustered the intellectual and academic forces necessary to make such a nationally recognized victory for science possible. Not only did evolution win in a legal, technical sense, but what the judge called the “breathtaking inanity” of intelligent design was exposed for what it is. It was a pivotal event legally, but perhaps even more so, it was pivotal culturally.
And this is where Dr. Scott has proven truly indispensable. In every new case, in every bad bill in a state legislature, or backward curriculum from a creationist school board, the NCSE has not only brought to bear intellectual and scientific firepower, but in the person of Dr. Scott, science education has perhaps its greatest ambassador. In the media, in talks to audiences like this one, in court rooms, and person to person, she brings an enthusiasm for learning, a whip-smart sense of humor, an approachability that dispels stereotypes of scientists and secularists, and a generosity of spirit toward those with whom she disagrees. Eugenie Scott has been crucial for the cause of science education, and she is truly irreplaceable.
But, though irreplaceable, she is moving on. As many of you know, Dr. Scott will be stepping down from her position as executive director of NCSE at the end of this year, after a remarkable twenty-seven years on the job. Luckily for all of us, she leaves NCSE incredibly strong, nationally respected, and a formidable force for the integrity of science education in America.
So, it gives me great pleasure to present this Center for Inquiry and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, “Champion of Evolution Education.”Nickell Presented Balles Prize
Joe Nickell, CSI’s senior research fellow and prolific author of investigative books, was presented CSI’s previously announced (SI, September/October 2013) Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking.
“It has been my great pleasure to have worked with Joe for several decades now . . . and I continue to be amazed, even awe-struck about his extraordinary investigative skills, deep knowledge, insight, scholariness, professionalism, fairness, and literary productivity,” said CSI Executive Council member and Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier in presenting Nickell his award. “Both in the quality and the quantity of his investigations and writings, he is a wonder, a true national treasure—international treasure really, because he investigates and is read everywhere he goes around the world—and one eminently deserving of this year’s Robert P. Balles Prize.”
The 2013 scary movie The Conjuring was very loosely based on the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters who moved into a “haunted” Rhode Island farmhouse in January 1971. There, hysteria soon reigned, the flames of which were fanned by the infamous paranormal “investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren. Now the Perrons’ oldest daughter Andrea is at work on a trilogy on the case called House of Darkness House of Light (Perron 2011, 2013).Dramatis Personae
The Perrons—he of French Catholic descent, she part Cherokee—married in 1957. In short order they had five children. (Writes Andrea, “It’s a Catholic thing” [I: 446].)
Roger Perron’s work took him on long road trips, a fact that harmed his marriage (he and his wife eventually divorced) and kept him largely a stranger to his children. He was skeptical of most of the occult phenomena reported by the six others. Andrea Perron (I: 112, 195) characterizes the situation as her mother’s integrity “being overtly challenged by disbelief, as though her opinion was entirely irrelevant, her recounting of events fraudulent.” The girls were “squarely in her camp.” (Roger eventually seemed to acquiesce, possibly to promote domestic harmony—something I have observed on occasion in my fieldwork.)
Carolyn Perron was highly impulsive. When she saw an ad for a colonial farmhouse at Harrisville, Rhode Island, she viewed the property and—without consulting Roger—made a down payment, even though they were strapped for cash. Effectively a lapsed Catholic, Carolyn became something of a New Ager. She “felt” and “sensed” various “presences” (e.g., I: 59, 63, 108), practiced dowsing for water (I: 146–147, 153), saw apparitions, and—once—seemed “possessed” (I: 156–159, 185; II: 355–363, 393). After one experience she developed a neck pain for which a doctor could find no physical basis (I: 355). She had fainting spells, typically in front of the fireplace and in Roger’s presence, and he would rush to save her from the fire (I: 249, 278, 279).
Like mother like daughter. “Each of the girls developed a real emotional attachment to the spirits in the house,” Andrea says casually (I: 454), “while bonding between dimensions.”
Andrea (or Annie) was the Perrons’ first child, born in 1958. No wallflower, when their previous house was vandalized and Andrea thought she knew who the culprit was, she pounced on the boy, pummeling him and breaking his nose. About three years later she was dismissed from a confirmation class when she had an “altercation” with the priest, challenging him about masturbation and homosexuality (I: 7–8, 260–261). Andrea sometimes saw “shadows” and heard voices (I: 192–193).
Nancy, the second daughter, was a “nine-year-old spitfire,” explains Andrea (I: 25). When spirits began to appear to the new residents, Andrea says of her sister, “Competitive in every way, Nancy had to claim credit for the first official sighting” (I: 213). A girlfriend once accused her of faking poltergeist-type occurrences in her presence, but friendship prevailed as the girl reconsidered (I: 484–485). Odd things happened to Nancy. For example, once becoming lost on the way home by taking an unfamiliar trail, she encountered an apparitional “family” (I: 131). She and a girlfriend played with a Ouija board, whereupon, she said, “The spirits talk to us through it” (II: 293).
Christine (or Chrissy), Andrea insists, “developed supernatural skills acquired only through the use of a sixth sense” (I: 121). On one occasion, “something wicked,” says Andrea, “had rudely awakened Christine in the middle of the night.” For months at a time, however, Chrissy would sleep undisturbed by “the presence” (I: 392–393).
The fourth child, Cynthia (or Cindy), “attracted supernatural activity unlike any of her siblings,” and, Perron adds, had “passive/aggressive tendencies” (I: 431, 438). She reported multiple apparitional experiences (I: 73–74, 223; II: 69, 164); the receipt of “telepathic messages” (II: 2); an invisible entity coming to her aid (I: 314–315); and entering “another realm of the house, another dimension” (I: 434). Her bed, she claimed, vibrated at times and, when she was thirteen, “levitated,” or at least rocked wildly once, while she screamed incessantly—although the rest of the family downstairs heard none of this (I: 435).
April, the youngest child, was only five, a preschooler, when the Perrons moved into the old farmhouse. April had what most people would call an imaginary friend. “Oliver” became her frequent “playmate,” and their communication was “telepathic” (I: 454; II: 95–97). The “baby” at home, April watched “as her sisters begged for the same type of attention she received all day, every day” (I: 1). When she did go to school, her behavior landed her from time to time in “parochial purgatory”—detention.
Then there were Ed and Lorraine Warren—the demon-hunting duo—who visited the home a few times. They were not sought out by the Perrons, as The Conjuring portrays, but simply showed up there one day. That it was on a night “just prior to Halloween” (II: 258) is typical of the Warrens. Seeking publicity, their modus operandi was to arrive at a “haunted” house that they soon transformed into a “demonic” one, in keeping with their own medieval-style Catholic beliefs. Again and again they were attracted to the homes of Catholics: the Lutzes at Amityville, New York; the Smurls at West Pittston, Pennsylvania; the Snedekers at Southington, Connecticut. Coauthors of the Warrens’ books have since indicated they were encouraged to fabricate elements to make the books “scary,” and at least one such writer has effectively repudiated the book he wrote. I appeared with the Warrens on Sally Jesse Raphael for a pre-Halloween 1992 promotion of their book with the Snedekers, and found Ed Warren a belligerent, manipulative character (Nickell 2012, 281–286).Ghosts
Ghostly apparitions and pranks reportedly assailed the Perrons from the outset, sparing only the father, Roger. I read accounts of many of their apparitional experiences with an old familiarity. Such reports represent a common phenomenon well known to psychologists and skeptical investigators. Consider an early experience in the house when Carolyn was abed: she saw her dresser erupting in flames! Trying to react she found herself “paralyzed”—able only to watch the blaze and the sparks it shot off. Subsequently, however, she found not a singe to confirm what she had seemingly seen (I: 156–159).
She had clearly experienced a common waking dream, a type of hallucination that occurs in a state between being fully asleep or awake. This was accompanied—as often happens—by sleep paralysis, the inability to move because the body is still in the sleep mode (Nickell 2012, 41–43, 109).
Carolyn Perron had another characteristic waking dream in which, stirring from sleep and “sensing a presence” (a common experience), she opened her eyes and saw “The grotesque figure of a woman hovering above her.” Again “immobilized,” she watched the ghostly form approach as she reacted in terror, then—“It was gone” (I: 185–187). Andrea had a similar “nightmare,” saying, “It woke me up but then I couldn’t move” (I: 191). One doesn’t have to be in bed to have a waking dream. Eight-year-old Cindy was playing with toys on her bedroom floor, and “many hours passed without her recognizing it.” Then she saw the figure her mother had told the children about, and that Cindy had later seen “in a dream” (original emphasis). Now, in a “soft glow,” the figure emerged from the closet, and seeing it “instantly paralyzed Cindy” (I: 222).
Sometimes, however, Carolyn or the girls had an apparitional experience other than a waking dream. Andrea, for instance, during daily activity, saw “a family: a man, a boy and his dog, standing side-by-side, peering through the wall of her bedroom” (I: 473). Cindy, who exhibited many of the traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality, once whispered to her mother, “Mom, there’s a whole bunch of people eating in our dining room” (II: 69–70). On another occasion, Cindy saw several “little ghosts”—“native children”—playing in a nearby pine grove (II: 164–165). Apparitions tend to be perceived during altered states of consciousness. Many occur while the percipient is tired, in a relaxed state, daydreaming, or performing routine work—conditions in which, particularly with imaginative persons, a mental image from the subconscious might be briefly superimposed on the visual scene, rather like a camera’s double exposure (Nickell 2012, 110).Poltergeists
In addition to ghosts, so-called poltergeist phenomena were common at the Perron farmhouse. Although the superstitious attribute such pranks and disturbances to an invisible agency, a supposed spirit called the poltergeist, history indicates that the occurrences typically center around one or more real mischief makers in a household, perhaps acting from hostility or just seeking attention. Many have been caught at their secret misbehavior, while, on the other hand, science has never confirmed the existence of a single poltergeist (Nickell 2012, 325–331).
A good example of an apparent little “poltergeist” at the Perron home occurred for a period when older sister Andrea set up after-school classes with herself as teacher, using an old oak-framed slate blackboard. However, she tells us that “some scoundrel spirits from the Netherworld did not appreciate having to attend school and would play nasty tricks. . . .” The chalkboard was a target, being repeatedly smeared, often even erased, and was eventually completely smashed. Although Andrea believed it was all of the girls’ “favorite pastime,” I suspect that one of them secretly resented the extra “school” time their big sister was subjecting them to. To such reports, Lorraine Warren gave a knowing smile and said, “poltergeists”—as if her “clairvoyance,” rather than her fantasy proneness, told her so. States Andrea (I: 448):
As one of the most active rooms in the house, the kitchen attracted someone, maybe more than one spirit. The telephone was frequently tampered with, as were several appliances. Antique bottles were routinely arranged and rearranged, moved from open shelves to windowsills then back again; someone had a flair for interior design! A pile of dirt left on the floor, the broom propped beside it, leaning against a chair; a message received then ignored. Household provisions spilled and splashed about the premises, chairs pulled out from beneath children; hair pulling was always a less-than-gentle reminder of their omnipresence. And the flies!
Investigators, however, will need more and precise evidence than the recollections of schoolgirls some thirty to forty years late in order to conclude who the real poltergeists were. But suspects are readily at hand.
We must ask, did the supernaturally inclined Cindy really have her hair “knotted” by a spirit? Was she actually “dragged to the floor”? Was she genuinely “trapped” in a wooden box in the shed (where she had hidden during a game of hide-and-seek)? Or was she deliberately play-acting or even just fooling herself? (Perron II: 53, 48; cf. Nickell 2012, 347). The late psychologist Robert A. Baker, my long time ghost-hunting colleague, found that sometimes events that were attributed to a pranking entity (such as a telephone flying off a table) could have a simpler explanation (the cord was snagged by the leg of a chair and pulled when the chair was scooted forward) (Baker and Nickell 1992, 135–139).Witches and Demons
Even when the best evidence warrants a mundane explanation, Andrea still invokes the supernatural. For instance, her father was once angry about something and “touched a handle on the pot of meatballs” cooking in the kitchen, whereupon “it flew off the stove and hit the floor,” splattering him with sauce. Andrea insists she “saw that pot of meatballs go flying off the surface of the stove without the assistance of her furious father.” She wondered if the “Kitchen Witch”—a historic local figure named Bathsheba Sherman the Perrons obsessed on—was actually responsible (II: 236; I: 298).
Carolyn Perron had researched local history and found that Bathsheba had been charged with the murder of a child, although the case was dismissed. Nevertheless, people purportedly whispered she was a witch who had sacrificed an infant to the Devil (II: 299, 321, 404). But was Bathsheba instead—as Mrs. Warren told them, according to Andrea (I: 328)—“the lone demonic presence in their house?” Did Lorraine Warren really use her psychic powers to divine this? Apparently not: Carolyn Perron had told the Warrens about Bathsheba Sherman. Andrea says her mother let the Warrens have her notebook—filled with “meticulous notes” and sketches of frightening entities—but it was never returned (I: 404–405; II: 298–299, 314).
Mrs. Warren went on to suggest that some specific reported incidents—some knocking sounds, the house shaking—were not due to fierce winds but were instead “demonic in nature” (I: 53, 311, 313). Soon, whereas the Perrons had intended what they were telling the Warrens to be kept in confidence, they found otherwise when curiosity seekers began showing up unexpectedly. Among them were a “cluster of ghost hunters” and a man “with only one tool-of-the-trade in hand: his Holy Bible.” The Warrens, it turned out, were giving public lectures about the “case”; they even “named the town and described the farmhouse.” Carolyn Perron “felt utterly betrayed” by the Warrens (II: 324–329).
Nevertheless, their relationship culminated in Carolyn’s agreeing for the duo to hold what was supposed to be a séance. But it became an “infamous séance”—part ghost-hunting session, with lots of cumbersome equipment (which does not of course detect invisible beings), and part intended exorcism, including, in addition to a medium/shaman/holy woman and a parapsychologist from Duke University, a priest. Carolyn Perron told her husband nothing of this until the Warrens’ entourage showed up again at their door. Roger was livid.
As the “cleansing” ritual progressed, the suggestible Carolyn began to work herself into the state obviously expected of her. As the group prepared, she looked “unresponsive” with “vacant hollow eyes.” When the group held hands—except for the protesting Roger—Carolyn began to mumble incoherently. “A low-pitched guttural utterance emerged from deep within her being as her quaking body trembled in place.” Suddenly, “Carolyn’s chair lifted from the floor and flew straight back, traveling at light speed into the parlor. She hit the floor with such force everyone present could hear the air rushing from her lungs” (II: 346–358).
No doubt Carolyn—perhaps unaware—was simply acting like those folk who “go under the power” at a Pentecostal service, falling, twitching, or what have you, just as expected of them. The process is akin to stage hypnosis, involving suggestion, compliance, and role-playing (Nickell 2013, 206–209). Although Andrea suggests Carolyn’s chair was propelled supernaturally and perhaps even levitated, this simply smacks of her usual exaggeration. The chair, I take it, was scooted back by Carolyn and—far from levitating—acted in accordance with the laws of physics, indeed moving “straight back” until it stopped abruptly and tipped over.
Roger Perron did not respond like one who had witnessed a defiance of natural law. Commendably, he first rushed to his wife’s aid, and as Ed Warren attempted to pull him back, “He whipped around and punched Ed directly in the face, dropping him to the floor.” Seeing Ed’s nose bleeding, Lorraine wiped his face. Roger ordered the bunch out of his home, whereupon—when the ghost “techs” went to fetch their equipment from the haunted cellar—they discovered that one or two, ah, poltergeists had managed during the hubbub to smash every one of their ghost/demon-hunting devices. Two of the girls, Andrea and Cynthia, had secretly watched the dining-room séance “through a crack in the door,” putting them near the cellar door; Chrissy had, unbelievably, slept through it all; and April was in and out of her room. Apparently no one could or would say anything about the broken devices (II: 358–362).
After slamming the front door behind the group, Roger said what he really thought. As Andrea tells us (II: 362): “He bitterly resented the intrusion, the theatrical farce of a pseudo-intellectual endeavor: ritualistic nonsense. Fake. . . . Roger considered their little sideshow a charade. . . .” After an earlier visit of the demonological duo, Roger had asked his wife: “Don’t you realize when you’re being played?” Calling them “a pair of two-bit charlatans,” he warned, “They’ll only use you for notoriety, for their own purposes” (II: 263).Conclusions
There were no magical beings—ghosts, poltergeists, witches, or demons—in the Perron home, only an erstwhile Catholic family given to occult beliefs. Influenced by folktales, their waking dreams, contagion (the spreading of belief from person to person by suggestion), and probable pranking by one or more of the five girls, the mother and daughters excitedly hyped their experiences and feelings into a full-blown case of haunting. Provoked by the father’s skepticism, the other six dug in their heels and were seemingly motivated to exaggerate and even create evidence.
It remained for a phony demonologist and clairvoyant to seek to capitalize on the family troubles, to emphasize demons over ghosts, and to plant the idea of potential possession. Although the horror film The Conjuring (2013) greatly exaggerates the case and suggests a possessed Carolyn Perron was freed of her “demon” after a wild exorcism, in fact it is apparent Mrs. Perron was simply caught up in suggestion and role-playing. Moreover, the Perrons continued to be plagued by nine spirits—or rather their belief in same—for several years to come (Elsworth 2013).References
Baker, Robert A., and Joe Nickell. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Elsworth, Peter C.T. 2013. “‘The Conjuring’ depicts family’s reported haunting . . . ,” The Providence Journal (July 17).
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Perron, Andrea. 2011, 2013. House of Darkness House of Light: The True Story. In two vols. (of a projected trilogy). Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
The widespread assertion that the world would be better off without religion is a reasonable hypothesis. Yet data suggest that skeptics should attach no more than a modest level of probability to it.
If you Googled the question constituting the title of this article—or minor variants of it—as the first author of this article did on Christmas Day of 2013, you’d end up with more than 650,000 hits. This high number attests to the keen public interest generated by this age-old question. Indeed, few topics have generated more impassioned discussion among religious believers and skeptics alike. For example, in 2007, the British organization Intelligence-Squared hosted a lively debate on the proposition that “We’d be better off without religion,” with proponents of the motion—Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens—squaring off against the opponents Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton, and Nigel Spivey. Over the past decade, a seemingly never-ending parade of books and articles have tackled “the question,” as we dub it, from various angles; entering the phrase “better off without religion” into an Amazon.com book search yields over 130 results.
Arguably, what is most striking about responses to the question by many prominent partisans on both sides is their extremely high level of confidence in the answer. For example, in a 2011 interview with Slate magazine, author and political commentator Dinesh D’Souza opined that “For a truly secular society, we should look to Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. But that’s the tip of the iceberg … The result [of these societies] has inevitably been repression, totalitarianism, persecution of the churches, and just a miserable society” (Weingarten 2011). Turning to the opposing side, in an interview with journalist Laura Sheahen (2007), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins embraced the unequivocal position that the world would be a far better place without belief in God, contending that religion increases the chances of war and political discord. Sheahen asked him, “If you had to make a case for religion—one positive, if minor, thing religion has done, what would it be?” Dawkins responded, “It’s true that some kind, nice, sympathetic people are also religious, and they might say that their kindness is motivated by religion. But equally kind people are often not religious. I really don’t think I can think of anything; I really can’t.” (emphasis added; http://salmonriver.com/environment/dawkinsinterview.html). Later, in a 2013 interview with CNN, Dawkins maintained, “The very idea that we get a moral compass from religion is horrible” (Prager 2013).
In this article, we address the overarching question of whether high levels of certitude are warranted among partisans of either position. In the interest of full disclosure, both authors of this article are atheists. At the same time, we have become concerned by what appears to be unjustified dogmatism by both religious skeptics and believers in discussions concerning an exceedingly complex and multifaceted question. Therefore, we attempt to demonstrate that (a) scientific data bearing indirectly on the question have routinely been neglected by many individuals on both sides of the debate; (b) such data, although informative, do not permit anything approaching conclusive answers to the question of whether religion makes the world a better or worse place. At the same time, such data cast serious doubt on broad-brush contentions (e.g., Dawkins 2006) that religion is usually or always associated with a heightened risk of immoral behavior, including violence. Hence, we view our article as a modest call for greater epistemic humility on the part of ardent defenders of both positions.Is the Question Even Answerable?
In practice, the question posed here is probably not answerable with certainty because a genuine experimental test of the question is impossible. For both pragmatic and ethical reasons, we could never randomly assign individuals to a condition in which they were raised in a religious environment and randomly assign others to be raised in a nonreligious environment, all the while ensuring that all participants in this fanciful Gedanken experiment experienced little or no contact with the contrasting worldview. Putting it differently, we will almost certainly never know the hypothetical counterfactual (Dawes 1994) to the question posed at the article’s outset; by “hypothetical counterfactual,” we mean the outcome that would have resulted had the world, or a large chunk of it, never been exposed to religion. That is not to say, however, that circumstantial scientific data cannot inform the question or adjust a rational individual’s assignment of probability to its answer.
Moreover, the question as commonly phrased (“Would the world be better off without religion?”) is probably not strictly answerable with scientific data because the word better necessarily entails a series of value judgments. Reasonable people will surely disagree on what would make the world a better place. Would the world be “better” with more political conservatism, invasive animal research, modern art, McDonald’s hamburgers, or Justin Biebers? The answers to these queries are matters of personal preference and lie outside the boundaries of science (although we would dispute the rationality of readers who reply “yes” to the last option). Nevertheless, when scholars have pondered whether the world would be better off without religion, the lion’s share have almost always referred, either implicitly or explicitly, to a world that is more humane—one in which people treat each other kindly. For provisional research purposes, we can operationalize this propensity roughly in terms of lower rates of aggression and higher rates of altruism. In this article, we therefore address the more tangible question of whether a world devoid of religion would witness (a) lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior1, including violence, and (b) higher levels of prosocial (altruistic) behavior than a world with religion.
It should perhaps go without saying that the question of whether the world would be better off without religion has no logical bearing on the ontological question of God’s existence. It is entirely possible to maintain that (a) God does not exist, but belief in God makes the world a more humane place on balance, or (b) God does exist, but belief in God makes the world a less humane place on balance. Indeed, a group of scholars who are sometimes encompassed under the rubric of Atheism 3.0 have recently lobbied for (a). They maintain that although there is no God, belief in God makes the world a kinder and gentler place (e.g., Sheiman 2009).
In any case, it should be beyond dispute that the question of God’s existence is logically and factually independent of the question of whether belief in God’s existence is beneficial for the human species. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to conflate these two questions, and we suspect that many partisans on both sides of the debate have done so, at least implicitly. If one concludes that belief in God is rational, one may be tempted to assume that belief in God would make the world a better place; conversely, if one concludes that belief in God is irrational, one may be tempted to assume that belief in God would make the world a worse place. At the risk of adding yet another logical fallacy to lengthy lists of such fallacies (e.g., Bennett 2012), we term this the argument from existence/nonexistence fallacy.2 In essence, this fallacy is the inverse of the familiar “argument from adverse consequences fallacy” (see Sagan 1995), in which one erroneously reasons backward from the adverse effects of a belief to gauge this belief’s veracity (e.g., “Lack of belief in God has negative consequences, so therefore God exists”). In contrast, the individual committing the argument from the existence/nonexistence fallacy incorrectly presumes that accurate beliefs regarding the existence of an entity (e.g., God) will always or usually lead to more salutary real-world outcomes. Yet, as the psychological literature on positive illusions suggests (Taylor and Brown 1988; but see Colvin and Block 1994, for a dissenting view), inaccurate beliefs may in some cases be tied to more adaptive outcomes, including higher levels of well-being and more satisfying interpersonal relationships.The Neglect of Research Evidence
Surprisingly, the extensive body of social science data bearing on the links between religion and both moral and immoral behavior have typically gone unmentioned in public discussions regarding the merits or demerits of religion. Two high-profile examples from religious skeptics are especially striking. In his 447-page book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, philosopher and prominent atheist Daniel Dennett (2006) devotes at most two pages (pp. 279–280) to the question of whether religion helps to makes people more moral, dismissing it peremptorily:
I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t [emphasis in original] believe in reward or heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others—including those with no religious affiliation —are represented about as they are in the general population. (p. 279)
Later, Dennett quips that
. . . Nothing approaching a settled consensus among researchers has been achieved, but one thing we can be sure of is that if [emphasis in original] there is a significant positive relationship between moral behavior and religious affiliation, practice, or belief, it will soon be discovered, since so many religious organizations are eager to confirm their demonstration underlines the suspicion that it just isn’t so. (p. 280)
For unclear reasons, Dennett neglects to review several dozen studies and at least two large-scale reviews bearing directly on this question (Baier and Wright 2001; Ellis 1985), including substantial bodies of data on the relation between religious belief and criminal behavior, which we examine in the following section.
Similarly, in his 405-page book, The God Delusion, Dawkins (2006) devotes approximately two pages (pp. 229–230) to this question. Dawkins approvingly cites Dennett’s aforementioned conclusions and refers only in passing to correlational data on the relation between religion and morality. Without citing any references to the substantial psychological and sociological literature on the topic, Dawkins maintains that “such research evidence as there is certainly doesn’t support the common view that religion is positively correlated with morality” (p. 229). Instead, on the same page, Dawkins cites only one observation, from neuroscientist Sam Harris (2006), that U.S. states that tend to be more socially conservative (and that are also characterized by higher levels of religiosity) are marked by higher levels of violent crime. We agree with Dawkins and Harris that such data may inform the debate. Nonetheless, these findings are difficult to interpret in view of the “ecological fallacy,” the error of drawing inferences regarding individual-level associations (in this case, the relation between religion and violence) from population-level data. It is well-established that this fallacy often (Piantadosi et al. 1988), although by no means always (Schwartz 1994), results in erroneous conclusions regarding the relation between two variables. 3 Because more informative data derive from examinations of the associations between religion and criminal behavior at the individual level, we examine such data next.Correlational Data
Does religion make good people behave badly? When approaching this question, it is all too easy to “cherry-pick” historical instances in which religion, or the lack thereof, is tied to violent, even horrific, acts. Unquestionably, some of the world’s greatest atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion. In the opening pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins (2006) recites a plethora of examples:
Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as “Christ-killers,” no Northern Ireland “troubles”… Imagine no Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it. (pp. 1–2)
The difficulty with this line of reasoning becomes evident, however, when considering an at least equally lengthy list of historical counterexamples. Even setting aside the contentious question of whether Hitler was inspired by religious doctrine, a topic that falls outside of our expertise to evaluate (see Dawkins 2006 and Evans 2007 for discussions), one can just as readily invoke scores of cases of heinous nonreligious violence on a grand scale. For example, radio–talk show host and political columnist Dennis Prager (2011) contends that “. . . far more people have been murdered—not to mention enslaved and tortured—by secular anti-religious regimes than by all God-based groups in history.” In support of this contention, he cites Mao Tse-tung’s murder of between forty and seventy million people, Stalin’s murder of at least twenty million of his own citizens, Pol Pot’s murder of approximately one in four Cambodians, the North Korean regime’s slaughter of millions of its citizens, among numerous other examples. It is safe to say that extremism of many kinds, religious or not, can predispose to large-scale violence, especially when conjoined with the deeply entrenched belief that one’s enemies are not merely mistaken but deeply evil (Lilienfeld et al. 2009). Whether religious belief makes such hate-fueled aggression more or less likely on average is far from clear.
Indeed, the question of whether religion increases or decreases the risk of genocidal and other large-scale violence may never be answered to our satisfaction. Nevertheless, the more circumscribed question of whether belief in God specifically, and religiosity more generally, are correlated—statistically associated—with criminal and antisocial behavior, including violence, has been investigated in dozens of studies.
The results of a few early investigations suggested little or no relation between religiosity and crime (e.g., Hirschi and Stark 1969). In contrast, more recent studies, as well as meta-analyses (quantitative syntheses) of the literature, have converged on a consistent conclusion: belief in God bears a statistically significant, albeit relatively weak, association with lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior, including physical aggression toward others (a statistically significant finding is one that would be extremely unlikely to be observed if the null hypothesis of a zero correlation between the variables were true). For example, in a meta-analysis of sixty studies that yielded seventy-nine correlations, Baier and Wright (2001) found a statistically significant, but weak, negative correlation (r=-.12) between religiosity and crime (correlations range from -1.0 to +1.0, and a correlation with an absolute value of .1 is typically regarded as weak in magnitude). Notably, all seventy-nine correlations were negative, although most fell in the range of -.05 to -.20. These findings run counter to Dennett’s (2006) claim, seconded by Dawkins (2006), that there is no statistical association between religiosity and criminality.
Still, this link appears to be qualified by other variables. The results of several studies suggest that the correlation between religiosity and crime is moderated by attendance at churches or other places of worship, with more frequent attenders being at especially low risk for crime (Ellis 1985; Good and Willoughby 2006). In addition, the diminished risk for aggression and antisocial behavior appears to be more closely associated with intrinsic religiosity, in which individuals view religion as personally important for its own sake (e.g., “I try hard to live all of my life according to my religious beliefs”) than with extrinsic religiosity, in which individuals view religion as a means to a personal end (e.g., “The primary purpose of prayer is to gain relief and protection”) (Bouchard et al. 1999).
More generally, religiosity is moderately and positively associated with self-control, a trait closely tied to impulse control; again, this association is especially pronounced for people with high levels of intrinsic religiosity (McCullough and Willoughby 2009). In work from our laboratory recently submitted for publication (Lilienfeld et al. 2014), we even found a slight but statistically significant tendency for religious nonbelievers (including professed atheists and agnostics) to report higher levels of certain traits relevant to psychopathic personality (psychopathy), especially weak impulse control and lack of empathy, relative to religious believers. Needless to say, however, the weak magnitude of these associations in no way implies that most atheists are psychopathic, let alone psychopaths.
Other correlational data point to a consistent association between religion and prosocial behavior. For example, in a meta-analysis of forty studies of adolescents, religiosity was moderately and positively associated with prosocial behaviors, such as volunteer work, altruistic acts, and empathic concern toward others (Cheung and Yeung 2011). Broadly mirroring other findings on the intrinsic-extrinsic religiosity distinction, the relation between religiosity and prosocial behavior was most marked for participants with high levels of private (rather than public) religious participation, such as individuals who pray when alone.
In a study of high-school students, Furrow and colleagues (2004) similarly found a strong association between religiosity and prosocial interests, including empathy and a sense of responsibility toward others. Most, although not all, investigators (e.g., Kohlberg 1981) have also reported positive correlations between individuals’ religiosity and their level of moral reasoning (Ellis and Peterson 1996), meaning that more religious individuals tend to reason in slightly more sophisticated ways about moral problems compared with nonreligious individuals (although moral reasoning and moral behavior tend to be only moderately correlated; e.g., Stams et al. 2006). Still other investigators have found that unconsciously priming participants by asking them to unscramble sentences containing words relevant to religion (e.g., God, sacred) makes them more financially generous to other subjects compared with unprimed participants (Shariff and Norenzayan 2007). The extent to which these laboratory findings can be generalized to real-world altruism remains to be seen, however.
Scholars have proposed numerous causal explanations for the link between religion and moral behavior (see Baier and Wright 2001 for a review). Among these hypotheses are that (a) fear of God’s wrath in the afterlife makes believers refrain from unethical actions (the so-called “hellfire hypothesis”); (b) consistent with the generally accepted etymology of the word religion as reflecting “tying together,” religious beliefs bind individuals more closely to communities, families, and others (social control theory); and (c) religious beliefs foster shame and guilt regarding unethical actions, thereby deterring people from engaging in them (rational choice theory). At the risk of oversimplifying an exceedingly large and complex body of literature, we can conclude that there is no definitive or even especially compelling evidence for any of these explanations, although none has been falsified. For example, in a study of 2,616 twins, Kendler and colleagues (2003) reported that a set of items reflecting belief in God as a punitive judge of one’s actions was significantly and negatively associated with risk for drinking and drug problems but was not significantly associated with risk for disorders associated with antisocial behavior, thereby offering inconsistent support for the hellfire hypothesis. The authors did find, however, a negative association between general religiosity and antisocial behavior disorders, corroborating the other correlational findings reviewed here.Caveats
Although extant correlational data are broadly consistent in demonstrating a statistical association between religious belief and (a) decreased levels of antisocial and criminal behavior and (b) heightened levels of prosocial behavior, such findings do not and cannot demonstrate causality (Galen 2012). As statisticians remind us, correlation does not by itself imply causation. Hence, the aforementioned hypotheses regarding the causal effect of religion on moral behavior may be explanations in search of a phenomenon. Authors who interpret these correlational data as demonstrating “the effect of religion on crime” (e.g., Baier and Wright 2001, 3) are therefore going well beyond the available evidence. Moreover, these findings leave us with the at least equally complex question of whether we can generalize from individual-level correlations between religion and crime to the broader implications of religion for society as a whole.
Although the correlational data are consistent with a potential causal influence of religion on moral behavior, many other explanations are possible. For example, what statisticians term the causal arrow could be reversed: higher levels of moral behavior might contribute to higher levels of religiosity. Longitudinal studies, which track participants over time, may eventually help to adjudicate between these competing hypotheses. The quite limited longitudinal data available thus far are mixed, with some studies finding that changes in people’s religiosity predict a lower risk of future delinquency and vice-versa (thereby suggesting a bidirectional relation), but with others finding no association in either direction (Eisenberg et al. 2011). In addition, much of the prosocial behavior exhibited by religious individuals is directed toward other religious individuals, so this behavior could partly reflect what psychologists call “in-group bias (Galen 2012).
Alternatively, one or more “third variables,” such as personality traits, could be responsible for the statistical association. For example, religiosity tends to be moderately associated with high levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness (Lodi-Smith and Roberts 2007; McCullough and Willoughby 2009). The literature already reviewed linking religiosity with self-control is consistent with this possibility, as conscientiousness is strongly associated with self-control. Therefore, religiosity per se may not contribute directly to higher levels of moral behavior; instead, religiosity may merely be a proxy for personality traits that are themselves related to morality. Indeed, twin data indicate that at least some of the association between religiosity and altruism is in part genetically mediated, meaning that some of the same genes that predispose to religiosity predispose to prosocial behavior (Koenig et al. 2007). These genes may contribute to personality traits that boost the chances of both religiosity and prosocial behavior, although this hypothesis awaits future research.
Another hypothesis is that devout and steadfast adherence to any meaningful worldview, rather than a religious worldview per se, is the genuine causal factor. As noted earlier, research points to a robust negative correlation between attendance at religious services and risk for crime. For example, it is possible that one would observe a comparably high correlation among atheists who are regular attendees at meetings of secular humanists. This intriguing hypothesis similarly warrants systematic investigation.
Moreover, even setting aside the crucial issue of causality, the reported correlations are almost always weak or at most moderate in magnitude. Hence, if there is a causal relation between religion and morality, it is most likely either (a) modest in size or (b) large in size but suppressed statistically (masked) by undetermined variables. The middling correlations also tell us that many religious individuals engage in high levels of immoral behavior, and that many nonreligious individuals engage in high levels of moral behavior, a point acknowledged by political and religious commentator Dennis Prager (2013): “None of this [the assertion that God informs morality] means that only believers in God can be good or that atheists cannot be good. There are bad believers and there are good atheists.” Furthermore, we are unaware of any data indicating that the relation between religiosity and morality takes the form of a threshold effect, whereby a “critical” level of religiosity is needed to be moral. Hence, we can safely answer a different—and widely asked—question with a high level of certainty: “Does one need religion to be moral?” The correlational data permit as close to a definitive answer as one can probably achieve in social science: No. Many nonreligious people clearly exhibit high levels of moral behavior and thinking.Religion as a Protective Factor against Immoral Behavior
Arguably, somewhat more compelling evidence for a potential causal role for religion in moral behavior derives from studies on the potential protective effects of religion on antisocial behavior. In these designs, investigators typically examine individuals at elevated risk for immoral actions, such as those who possess high levels of personality traits (such as impulsivity) that increase risk for such actions, or those reared in high-crime areas. The hypothesis tested in such studies is what researchers term a statistical interaction, which mathematically is a multiplicative rather than additive effect. In more concrete terms, investigators are testing the hypothesis that religion is especially likely to attenuate the risk of antisocial behavior among individuals who are most predisposed to it. This hypothesis carries a certain surface plausibility. Most individuals may not need religion to behave morally, but certain individuals—namely, those with potent dispositional or sociocultural predispositions—may need religion as a buffer of “line of last defense” against their antisocial propensities. These may be the very people for whom a moral compass offered by religion is necessary, or at least helpful.
Regrettably, this important hypothesis has been examined in only a handful of studies. Still, the admittedly limited findings are reasonably, although not entirely (Desmond et al. 2013), consistent. In many cases, religious belief appears to play a protective role against antisocial behavior among high-risk individuals. For example, in a study of young adolescents (average age of thirteen), Laird and colleagues (2011) found that the importance of religion to participants was related to a lower risk of rule-breaking behavior, including physical aggression. Notably, this decreased risk was highest among adolescents with low levels of impulse control. Similarly, in a large-sample study of adolescents, investigators found that high levels of religiosity exerted a buffering effect on the risk of alcohol and illicit drug use following negative life events (Wills et al. 2003; see also Bodford and Hussong 2013). In still another study of adolescents and young adults involved in gangs in El Salvador, Salas-Wright and colleagues (2013) reported that both religious coping and spirituality (especially the latter) were tied to lower rates of certain delinquent behaviors, including carrying a weapon, vandalism, and theft. Still, because the authors did not directly test a statistical interaction between risk-status (such as weak versus strong impulse control) and religiosity, the existence of a protective effect in this study can only be inferred indirectly.Caveats
The results of protective studies are sparse but provocative, and they raise the possibility that religious belief buffers high-risk individuals, such as those who are especially impulsive, against antisocial behavior. Still, as in the case of correlational studies, we cannot be certain that the findings reflect a genuine causal effect of religiosity on diminished risk for antisocial behavior. The apparent protective effect of religion on high-risk individuals could again reflect the indirect effect of unmeasured third variables, such as conscientiousness or devotion to a broader worldview, that are themselves correlated with religiosity. In future research, investigators should incorporate measures of such variables to test rival hypotheses for the buffering effect.Conclusions
The widely advanced hypothesis that the world would be “better”—more humane—without religion is entirely reasonable, and it should continue to be debated by thoughtful scholars. Contrary to the forceful assertions of some prominent atheist authors (e.g., Dawkins 2006; Dennett 2006), however, the data consistently point to a negative association between religiosity and criminal behavior and a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior. Both relations are modest in magnitude and ambiguous with respect to causation. At the same time, they cannot be ignored by partisans on either side of the discussion.
Our bottom-line conclusion is straightforward: any individuals who attach an extremely high level of probability to the answer to the question we have posed are placing opinions over evidence. Blanket assertions by advocates of either position can most charitably be described as scientifically premature. As in all scientific debates, humility in the face of equivocal data should be the watchword.
Moreover, we urge caution in “arguing by example,” as many influential scholars have done when addressing this question. One can readily generate compelling historical evidence that seemingly supports the hypothesis that religion makes the world more dangerous (e.g., Dawkins 2006), as well as equally compelling historical evidence that seemingly refutes it (e.g., Prager 2013). One might well suspect that there is some truth to both positions, and that religion may sometimes be a force for good and sometimes a force for evil, depending on the specific religious beliefs, specific individuals, and specific historical contexts involved.
In evaluating many of the debates concerning this question in the popular media, it is difficult not to be struck by the frequent neglect of the substantial scientific data bearing on it. Neither side has been immune from this tendency. For example, in a piece on the Huffington Post blog posted in December of 2013, pastor Rick Henderson wrote, “There is no morally good atheist, because [according to the atheist world view] there really is no objective morality” (Henderson 2013). Yet this assertion is contradicted by the correlational data we have reviewed, which demonstrate that many nonbelievers engage in high levels of moral behavior.
On the flip side of the coin, take Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s 1999 assertion, endorsed by Dawkins (2006, p. 249), that “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion” (see Lindner 2005). This proposition runs counter to an enormous body of social psychological data demonstrating that many, if not most, good people can be led to perform unethical acts with no religious coercion. For example, in the classic obedience studies of Stanley Milgram (1963; see Burger 2009 for a more recent replication), large proportions of participants were induced by an “experimenter” in a white lab coat (who was actually a confederate of Milgram’s) to deliver what they believed to be powerful and potentially deadly electric shocks to another innocent “participant” (who was another confederate of Milgram’s). In this study, nary a hint of religious influence was invoked. The purported experimenter carried the banner of the authority of science, not of religion. Interestingly, in the lone study to our knowledge to examine religiosity in the context of the Milgram paradigm, Bock and Warren (1972)4 found that both extreme religious nonbelievers and extreme religious believers were the least likely to comply with the experimenter’s demands to administer shocks; for reasons that are unclear, moderate believers were the most likely. Still, even the small number of nonbelievers delivered more than their share of shocks.
The Bock and Warren study, although limited in size (thirty participants in total), reminds us of how complicated the association between religiosity and moral (and immoral) behavior is likely to be. This link stubbornly resists reduction to simple formulas, probably because it is contingent on a host of still undiscovered factors. In addition, if the results of Bock and Warren’s investigation are replicable, they would imply that the relation between religiosity and moral behavior may be sometimes curvilinear or “dose-dependent,” further confounding facile efforts to equate religiosity in general with either prosocial or antisocial behavior (Galen 2012).
Some nonbelievers may react to this debate by staking out an alternative position: as scientific thinkers and skeptics, we should be seeking the truth, the consequences be damned. From this perspective, if God does not exist, we should be discouraging uncritical acceptance of religious tenets regardless of whether they exert beneficial or detrimental long-term effects on society. Knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon asserted, is power. In our view, this position is both intellectually consistent and intellectually honest, and we see merit in it. At the same time, advocates of this position need to be forthright in acknowledging that it may entail unknown risks that need to be weighed in public discussions of the value of religion to society.
Other thoughtful readers may object to our article on the grounds that the very question as we and others have framed it is woefully simplistic. According to one frequently cited estimate, there are approximately 4,200 religions in the world (Dekker 2009), with countless subtle differences within many of these belief systems. And surely, individuals apprehend and apply the religious tenets of their chosen faiths in a seemingly endless variety of ways. Making matters more complicated, cultures differ with regard to what behaviors they regard as moral or immoral. For example, although virtually all individuals in all cultures agree that theft and murder should be prohibited, there are sizeable differences of opinion when it comes to certain other activities, such as homosexuality, abortion, and open government protests (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985). Hence, the objection continues, attempting to answer the question of whether “religion in general” makes society “better in general” is a fool’s errand.
The point is well taken, and indeed, to the extent that the aforementioned caveats are legitimate, and we suspect that they are, they are all the more reason to insist on humility and circumspection in our claims. Most scientific assertions, especially those in the “softer” sciences of psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology, possess boundary conditions (Meehl 1978), and it seems implausible that the presence or absence of all religious beliefs would yield similar effects on all societies across all historical periods.
In the meantime, as the debate continues, we exhort readers to emulate the epistemic modesty of our Emory University colleague, primatologist Frans de Waal (2013), who addressed this question with the thoughtful uncertainty that it richly deserves:
I’m struggling with whether we need religion. . . . Personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along . . . so I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed. But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because we’ve never really tried—there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment.Acknowledgments
The authors thank Frans de Waal, Lori Marino, Susan Himes, and Bill Hendrick for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript.Notes
1. The term antisocial, which means “against society,” should not be confused with asocial, which means “apart” from society. The antisocial person engages in behaviors that harm others, such as criminal acts, whereas the asocial person prefers to have little to do with others.
2. In some cases, this fallacy may stem from a “representativeness heuristic,” the tendency to presume that “like goes with like” (Kahneman 2011; see also Gilovich and Savitsky’s 1996 article in Skeptical Inquirer). Individuals who perceive that a belief, such as belief in God, reflects a rational judgment may assume that this belief goes along with other positive things, such as more humane treatment of others, and vice versa for people who perceive a belief to be irrational.
3. One widely cited example of the ecological fallacy derives from the work of Robinson (1950), who identified a high correlation between being foreign-born (versus being U.S.-born) and literacy across the then-forty-eight U.S. states. Yet, when Robinson examined this association at the individual level, the actual correlation was not only much weaker but in the opposite direction: people born in the U.S. had higher levels of literacy. The reason for the fallacious ecological correlation was migration: recent immigrants to the U.S. tended to move to states with higher levels of literacy. That said, an ecological study of crime rates across thirteen nations yielded only mixed support for the Harris/Dawkins hypothesis: countries with higher levels of religiosity tended to exhibit lower levels of property (but not violent) crime (Ellis and Peterson 1996).
4. In an interesting bit of trivia, the study’s second author, Neil Clark Warren, later went on to found the religiously inspired online dating site, eHarmony.com.References
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Think: Why You Should Question Everything. By Guy P. Harrison. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61614-808-9. 240 pp. Softcover, $16.95.
You are almost certainly familiar with the old saw, “Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.” This adage comes to mind when reading Guy Harrison’s terrific, useful, well-written, and just plain entertaining new book, Think: Why You Should Question Everything. In its application here, we might rephrase it to: “Debunk a pseudoscientific claim and you might disabuse your reader of the validity of that particular claim for a day. Teach your reader how to think critically, provide him or her with the intellectual tools necessary to assess assertions or claims about how the world works, and you can inoculate that reader against nonsense on a far broader and deeper level and for a lifetime.” Think does precisely these things, and does so in an entertaining fashion.
Think is not a debunking book at its heart. Sure, Harrison does an admirable job of briefly deconstructing all of the usual suspects: ancient astronauts, astrology, Atlantis, flying saucers, ghosts, homeopathy, Nostradamus, and a host of others. The many sections of Chapter 3 succinctly accomplish much of that heavy lifting. But Harrison’s approach—and his realized goal—extends far beyond setting up and knocking down an extensive checklist of pseudoscientific claims. Think, as you might suspect from the title, is about, well, thinking.
Harrison does not set himself up as an authority on all things paranormal, occult, extreme, and extraordinary and then debunk the claims one by one. Instead, his focus is on how to scientifically—and yes, skeptically—assess any claim or hypothesis, extraordinary or otherwise. Time and time again in the book, Harrison agrees that he can’t necessarily disprove extreme claims, and that he won’t rule out the possibility that evidence may one day be collected that supports the validity of ESP or the historicity of the ancient aliens hypothesis. Further, he concedes, time and time again, that it would be exceptionally cool if any such proof were to be produced. A giant, bipedal primate prowling the deep woods of the American Northwest? Bring it on! Your deceased ancestors returning in spectral form to share their stories with you? Awesome! Extraterrestrial aliens visiting Earth in antiquity and playing an active role in the technological progress of past peoples? Beyond cool! The question is not, as Harrison maintains, whether such hypotheses are interesting or engaging or intriguing. Of course they are. The important question remains: Is there any credible evidence to support such claims? Harrison does not simply say “No.” He explains how the evidence supplied (at least so far) is woefully insufficient to support these claims.
There is another important thread running through Think that should be lauded here. Skeptics are often viewed by the less skeptically inclined as, essentially, prissy party poopers. Skeptics are forever raining on everyone else’s parade when it comes to intriguing, game-changing views of history, zoology, the human mind, mortality, and even reality itself. We’re fuddy-duddies and curmudgeons, naysayers and rejectionists. We’re out to ruin everyone’s good time because we simply don’t want to believe this stuff. We want the world to be predictable, boring, and mundane. Harrison debunks this libel against skeptical scientists when he points out that, in reality, the folks who would be the most jazzed by proof of extraterrestrial visits, Sasquatch, ESP, and the like are the very professional scientists whose fields of study would be most directly impinged upon by that proof. Because of an abiding interest, both professional and personal, in human evolution, a fascination with apes, and an obsession with the movie Planet of the Apes Harrison asserts that no one, not even the most fervent cryptozoologist, would be as thrilled as he by the discovery of a real live Bigfoot.
I think Harrison is spot on about this. Though I never had the privilege of meeting Carl Sagan, I have read most of his books, watched Cosmos (about ten times!), and have seen many of his television interviews. And I am dead certain that though he was highly skeptical about it, no one would have been more tickled than he would have been had definitive proof been presented that extraterrestrial aliens were joyriding around our planet in interstellar spacecraft.
It is abundantly clear in Think that Harrison understands and explicitly admits that the claims he entertains are enormously interesting and gigantically appealing. He also understands that for this reason people are drawn to such claims and, let’s face it, may be less critical and less skeptical than they ought to be about them, because they would really like it if there was a remnant population of plesiosaurs swimming in a Scottish lake, or if disease could be cured by drinking what is, effectively, water, or if we are the descendants of creatures from another planet. Harrison understands, however, and Think is predicated on the fact that as much as people (and scientists are people, so we are included here) might want to believe these things, they don’t want to be fooled into believing that which is not so. His enumeration of the ways in which our brains can be fooled or misled in Chapter 2 (under the heading “Your Bizarre and Biased Brain”) is, all by itself, worth the price of admission. I think the most significant gift that Harrison provides in Think is a skill set that enables us to avoid being fooled.
Harrison ends the book with a chapter that amounts to a love letter to the fascinating, captivating, surprising, and sometimes just plain weird universe in which we live. It’s an extraordinary and lovely way to show how science doesn’t suck the mystery out of life; rather, it celebrates it. Think is a book that should be on every skeptic’s bookshelf, and, more importantly, the bookshelf of anyone who is not yet convinced that science is the best way to know.
George Edwards has led boat cruises on Loch Ness for the past twenty-six years; as an avid believer in Nessie, Edwards has presented the world with two photos that he claims show the monster. The latest of these became public when Edwards approached the Inverness Courier with it in August 2012.The hump prop used in the Truth Behind the Loch Ness Monster documentary.
In the photo you can indeed see a humped, dark-colored mass in the water a short distance away from the boat with the beautiful Urquhart castle looming in the distance. “Could this be the Loch Ness Monster?” asked the Courier on August 3 (http://bit.ly/NXgPFs). The article also quoted Edwards as saying, “It was slowly moving up the Loch towards Urquhart Castle and it was a dark grey colour. It was quite a fair way from the boat, probably about half a mile away but it’s difficult to tell in water.”
Upon inspection of the photo many were quick to point out that it was unlikely that the object was half a mile away from the boat, but as Edwards said himself, it can be difficult to judge distance when on open water, so I didn’t suspect foul play at that stage. I thought this was a case of misidentification because there was nothing that suggested foul play, and people misidentify things as monsters on Loch Ness all the time. On a trip to Loch Ness with Joe Nickell in March we met Steve Feltham—the only full time Nessie hunter—who told us how he is always disappointing excited tourists who have taken a photo of driftwood or the wake of a boat thinking it’s the monster.The postcard George Edwards has been selling for years showing the “hump” of the Loch Ness Monster.
I realized that the most logical thing to do would be to contact George Edwards and get the story from the man himself. I sent various emails to the cruise business that he runs and made several phone calls, too, but didn’t manage to make successful contact and was constantly told to call back later. I turned my attention to those on the ground at Loch Ness that I had met during my trip there in March thinking that they might know something that the rest of the world didn’t.
They didn’t disappoint.
I had an almost instant response from Adrian Shine of the Loch Ness Visitor and Exhibition Centre (http://www.lochness.com) who told me he believed the photo was of a stationary object in the water that was bobbing slightly to produce concentric ripples, and that he believed the object to be no farther than twenty meters from the camera. More interestingly though, he told me that George Edwards had been selling the photo on a postcard for months before he went to the press with it (http://bit.ly/RPhxoJ), revealing that it certainly wasn’t a new photo at all. “For Mr. Edwards’ background you should look at Dick Raynor’s website,” Adrian told me.The hump out in the water of Loch Ness.
There I found out that George Edwards had taken a similar photo in 1986, though that photo showed a dark mass in the water in motion, leaving behind it quite a wake. On his website Dick Raynor says of the 1986 photo, “I remember him telling me at the time how hard it had been to drag the water filled tube out of the back of a van and down to the water before it was towed out into the loch!” (http://bit.ly/NlHGtr).
I also contacted Steve Feltham (http://www.nessiehunter.com) who lives in a van on Dores Beach overlooking the Loch. He moved to Loch Ness in 1991 to find the Loch Ness monster and is credited as the only full time Nessie hunter; he holds the Guinness World Record for the longest Loch Ness monster vigil. Joe Nickell and I met him in March and were both touched by his dedication and honesty. I knew that if anyone was likely to know anything about the photo it would be Steve, but sadly I didn’t hear back from him, which left me in a predicament. I couldn’t get in touch with Edwards to talk to him directly. Although there were suggestions of hoaxed photos by Edwards, there was no definite evidence of this, and although the photo had been sold on a postcard for months that didn’t prove anything in particular either. There wasn’t much progress to be made with the photo at all, and I could only speculate—which is never helpful.
Then, on August 22, Steve left a comment on my blog (http://bit.ly/PLZ9Rt), explaining that the photo by Edwards was a hoax and that he had the evidence to prove it.
I can quite categorically say that George Edwards has deliberately punted a photo that he knows to be of a fibreglass prop from a documentary, as a real picture of something unexplained . . . no question. I now have this hump, I also have film of it being used in the water, and I also have film of it on the DECK OF HIS BOAT! Go to my Facebook page and there you will find the whole story as it unfolds. Also drag out your copy of “The Truth Behind the Loch Ness Monster” documentary, and watch the first seven minutes, you will even see a shot of the hump in the same position in the Loch as where George filmed it.
He wasn’t wrong. He had posted several photos on his Facebook wall on August 19 (http://on.fb.me/Sg2yEE) showing a fiberglass hump that had been used in a documentary by National Geographic for Channel 5 called The Truth Behind the Loch Ness Monster, which did indeed resemble the thing in the photo. Steve reported on his Facebook page how he had contacted the producers of the show to ask what had happened to the prop used during filming and got a response from the production team stating that they had recognized the photo, now being reported on internationally, as the prop they had used in their documentary.The hump on Edwards’s boat during filming of the documentary.
Feltham also reported how he had visited Edwards a few days after the photo had gone public to clarify whether there were more photos of the monster or not. Edwards, frustrated by the questions, told Feltham that there were eleven photos that had all been sent to Peter Jolly, a local freelance photographer who, when contacted, explained that despite being told he would be sent the eleven photos hadn’t seen them at all.
As this was all unfolding, colleagues of Feltham went through the opening sequence of The Truth Behind the Loch Ness Monster, in which the original prop was used, frame by frame. For the opening sequence the prop was towed through the water to create the effect of a monster gliding through the water of Loch Ness with Urquhart Castle in the distance. George Edwards was driving the boat the film crew was on. When the frame by frame shots of the prop are overlaid onto the Edwards photo it becomes quite apparent that the object is the same size and shape—just in a different position. If, as Steve Feltham alleges, Edwards sneaked a photo of the prop in the water during the filming of the opening sequence for the documentary, then this change in position is something you would expect to see.Frame by frame shots of the hump prop (right) overlaid onto the Edwards photo shows they are indeed the same object.
George Edwards has not commented on the hoax allegations, though a few weeks following the accusations from Feltham, Edwards did a radio interview about the Loch Ness monster with Radio 4 Extra (http://bbc.in/OJKql9) in which he talks about the 1986 photo, but not the one from August . . . perhaps he has the hump?
All in all, the investigation into the latest Loch Ness monster photo has been an interesting one, with those who want there to be a monster coming up with the solution that others couldn’t. The investigation also showed that even the oldest monster myths still have life in them.
Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium. By Mark Edward. Feral House, Port Townsend, Washington, 2012. ISBN: 978-1936239276. 242 pp. Softcover, $18.95.
This is not a book for the faint of heart. That is, this is not for the skeptic who has been living in an echo chamber. Your first clue should be the fact that Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium has a foreword written by James Randi, but it includes Uri Geller in the acknowledgments. If you’re looking for a critical exposé on the inner workings of charlatans, let me remind you that you still haven’t read your signed copy of Flim Flam. You will also not find a great amount of animosity toward these peddlers of bullshit. Psychic Blues not only empathizes with psychics but at times even admires them and their artistry. Whatever you think of these vultures, let it never be said that they aren’t creative.
This gentle treatment was especially surprising coming from Mark Edward, but it wasn’t the biggest surprise I received in reading the book. What you may not know, and what may shock the hell out of you, is that Edward is still a practicing psychic “entertainer.” Edward is truly a conflicted medium . . . and person. At times it feels like two different people are writing. There are moments that are apologetic and dark, though often followed by defensive self-aggrandizing.
There are several instances when Edward admits to being called out on his psychic act, but then slyly defends his brand of entertainment. This is understandable in a time and place when his very livelihood might have been on the line, but even now (years later) Edward doesn’t give any credit to the skeptics of his past. “Unfortunately, like most shortsighted people, these brief moments of unexplainable mystery only served to increase Ed’s sense of alienation and aggravation toward the psychics,” (107) and ironically, “he was clearly one of those people who is never happy unless he’s the center of attention” (102).
The greatest tragedy of this book is that Edward seems to miss out on his own lesson, and it’s a really good one: We should listen to each other and talk to each other much more than we do. This is the point that Psychic Blues demonstrates so wonderfully over and over again. We need to connect more often and with more honesty.
“That’s the real magic; there is a serenity and wisdom to quiet listening” (220).
Edward sees this but somehow wants to believe that the listening he did and does as a psychic is the same thing. It is not. It reminds me of some of my friends who are Life Coaches (a.k.a. unemployed). I mean, they’re just being good listeners, giving the best advice they can, and helping to fulfill a very real need of their clients. What’s the problem? The problem is that they are not actually friends or family members of their clients. The clients are giving them money and putting them in a relative position of authority, but they are not a doctor, psychologist, licensed therapist, or even an on-call EMT at a Skrillex concert. They are screwing with people’s lives without the least amount of expertise. That’s not just unethical, it’s downright dangerous.
To Edward this is a form of entertainment, and since you don’t run out halfway through Hamlet to explain “this guy’s not really the prince of Denmark,” why would you tell a sitter that you got her name off her tacky gold necklace? Another analogy that Edward likes to use, courtesy of his friend Docc Hilford, is that “doing a disclaimer is kind of like walking into a really fancy French restaurant, and right before they serve your food the chef comes out and says it ‘came out of a can.’” Of course, I’ve always believed that talking about canned food isn’t the problem, canned food is the problem.
I understand that Edward is an entertainer first and a skeptic second. However, Edward would like to believe that he has “infiltrated” the psychic industry in much the same way that I want to believe I “infiltrate” the world of chiropractic every time I’m hired to play a patient for an unnamed school’s video series. However, the truth is that we both need the money and, more importantly, these jobs offer us at least a minor opportunity to put our most prized talents to work.
Are we ignoring some of our principles to do it? Probably, but sometimes an artist is willing to give up a little bit of decency for the chance to pay a few bills with art. And now, after I’ve lost a chunk of my soul in exchange for a bachelor-degree-justifying paycheck, I can return to my skeptic pals with some brand new insights about the inner workings of the chiropractic industry. This is a bonus. This is not a free pass of self-justification that will allow me to rename myself as the Double Agent of Chiropractic. But Edward had this to say about his work as a psychic: “I pretended I was Patrick McGoohan in an episode of Secret Agent. I was undercover. There are many similarities between what a good magician or mentalist does and what a spy is tasked to do; it’s all down to staging, misdirection, and sight lines” (65).
This is an important work that should not be overlooked. It presents a unique insight that you will not find anywhere else, and it could not have been delivered by anyone but Mark Edward. As James Randi says, “he has the background experience to write such a book from a totally different point of view from anyone else I know.” Yes, this book may also piss you off and even have you face-palming at times. But do you want to learn about psychics? The people, not the tricks? Do you want to understand who psychics are and not just how they operate? Here is your book.
Autism pseudoscience is back in the news, and this time ice cream is the scapegoat. According to the animal rights group PETA, childhood autism may be diminished with a dairy-free diet. While this is not a new campaign (it appears to have debuted in 2008), PETA recently made headlines as scientists and others pointed out there is no established correlation between dairy and autism. In fact, any such correlation has been roundly debunked.
The Gluten-Free-and-Casein-Free-Diet (GFCF Diet for short) originated in the early 90s, and became popular among families living with autism after the 1998 publication of Special Diets for Special Kids, a book about using dietary restrictions to treat developmental disabilities. It waas this book that made notorious “anti-vaccination” spokesperson Jenny McCarthy suspect inoculations caused her son’s developmental disability.
“What I got from the book was Evan was born with a weaker immune system; getting vaccinated wreaked havoc in his body, and mercury caused damage to the gut (the gut being the home base for your immune system), which caused his inability to process certain proteins, and one could see the result of this damage when he consumed wheat or dairy. Through removing wheat and dairy, this book proposed, some of these behaviors [Evan’s symptoms] could dissipate or disappear.” - Jenny McCarthy, Louder than Words
PETA and others pushing a vegan diet to cure autism may not realize their position is inextricably linked to anti-vaccine activism, which has been responsible for dramatic upsurges in deadly and preventable diseases in recent years. The CDC recently blamed anti-vaccination activism in part for the highest measles rates in twenty years. Suggesting that dairy makes autism symptoms worse sends new parents down a rabbit hole of dangerous claims, from the relatively innocuous “go easy on the gluten” to the quasi-homicidal “beware of vaccines.”
But all of that might be justifiable if dairy did, in fact, cause autism or even worsen it. It doesn’t. When pressed for evidence, PETA and others trot out a few anecdotes and the same couple of small-scale studies claiming to show that autistic kids who went on a GFCF diet showed significantly reduced symptoms. However, these studies are incredibly old (one is almost two decades old) and have major flaws. The first was only single-blinded. The parents who were responsible for reporting whether their child improved knew whether the kid received treatment or not. And the second didn’t actually find a direct correlation between milk intake and autism symptoms. When the studies were repeated and these flaws fixed, the positive effect went away completely or was so weak as to be a non-starter. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that, at best, they can’t recommend a GFCF diet to treat autism. And this should matter to PETA, since they seem to take the AAP as experts on PETA’s own website, noting that the organization warns not to give cow’s milk to infants.
Since the recent press attention, social media has been aflutter with users asking PETA why they would still make this (at best) outdated autism claim. Most who tweeted at the organization received a response like this:
The link leads to a site where PETA summarizes their evidence, citing the two ancient studies but paying more attention to the stories parents have told: “The Internet contains numerous heart-wrenching stories from parents of kids who had suffered the worst effects of autism for years before dairy foods were eliminated from their children’s diets.” Presumably, the organization would not accept Internet comments as sources if the parents had said it was pork that cured their child’s autism.
In Louder than Words, McCarthy describes her heartbreaking tale of trying to understand her son’s disability, starting with seemingly endless seizures at age two. After a harrowing hospital experience makes her lose faith in doctors, and after being forced to wait months for the proper behavioral treatments, McCarthy turns to several spiritual healers, including two Mormon missionaries who predict her son will be better “in a year’s time,” and submerses herself in internet research. “It was time to dig and get my doctorate from the University of Google,” she says. In the end, she subjects her child to chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and a barrage of other alternative treatments. McCarthy’s science education has clearly failed her (and by extension, her son). Likewise, the evidence provided on PETA’s site indicates that science isn’t their strong suit either, however much good they do otherwise.
I stopped buying dairy products eleven years ago for animal welfare reasons. I also don’t buy meat or eggs. My diet is, for the most part, vegan. There are plenty of good reasons people choose to avoid animal products, from animal protection to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity  to curbing climate change. But these bonus issues have the benefit of being evidence-based. Dairy, on the other hand, doesn’t cause or aggravate autism, and claiming that it does indirectly supports the same deadly pseudoscience that has created massive outbreaks of horrifying diseases. PETA would do well to retract their claim and apologize to the parents of autistic children. And maybe send some coupons for soy ice cream.
 While McCarthy advocates spreading out vaccinations in her book, she claims she was never actually anti-vaccine. “Everyone should ask questions, but I’m certainly not against them,” she told Lara Spencer, referring to her op-ed in the Chicago Sun Times. This seems to contradict her previous position: “We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins. If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f--king measles.”
A Review of Studies on the Moon and Human Behavior and Lunar Beliefs
IT IS COMMONLY assumed that a full moon brings out the worst in people. Those who do research in this area invariably begin reports by reminding readers that "lunacy" and "lunatic" are derived from luna, the Latin word for moon. Although lunacy is an outdated concept, investigators have tried to link the phases of the moon to such behaviors as alcoholism, madness,, epilepsy, somnambulism (moon walking), suicide, homicide, arson, and, of course, lycanthropy (werewolfism).
Arnold Lieber (1978), a Miami psychiatrist, used the term lunar effect when referring to supposed links between phases of the moon and behavior. Critics prefer the term Transylvania effect (Shapiro et al. 1970). As one might guess, those who defend the lunar hypothesis have objected to the latter, "because it conjures up visions of werewolves and Draculas" (Garzino 1982, 399). In our view, however, neither term is appropriate, since the word effect implies that investigators can establish something more than a correlation in this area. Obviously, without having had a "control group" on a planet without a moon (perhaps a random sample of Venusians), researchers cannot show that a full moon exerts a causal influence on behavior.
In the first part of this article, we describe results from a meta-analysis of studies that examined relationships between phases of the moon and behavior (Rotton and Kelly 1985a). We also note several studies that appeared after we completed our meta-analysis. In the second part, we speculate about why lunar beliefs persist despite the absence of reliable linkages between phases of the moon and behavior.Research on Lunar Cycles and Behavior
Rotton and Kelly (1985a) combined data from 37 published and unpublished studies in a meta-analysis that had examined relationships between the moon's synod (4-phase) cycle and abnormal, deviant, and criminal behavior. Meta-analysis is a statistical procedure that combines results from empirical investigations. It allows reviewers to do three things: (1) estimate the overall or combined probability of results from different studies; (2) assess the size of relationships when results are averaged; and (3) identify factors that might help to explain why some studies have obtained apparently reliable results while others have not. This meta-analysis differed in one important respect from those that have been undertaken to resolve controversies in other areas: It included a reanalysis of results from previously published studies.
Of the 23 studies we checked, nearly one-half contained one or more statistical errors. Some of these were serious enough to prompt us to publish interim reports (Kelly and Rotton 1983; Rotton, Kelly, and Frey 1983) to correct errors that had crept into the literature. For example, we found that Lieber and Sherin (1972) had employed inappropriate and misleading statistical procedures in their often-cited study of homicides in Dade County, Florida. On the basis of binominal tests of significance, they claimed that a disproportionate number of homicides occurred during the 24-hour period before and after full moons. We found that this claim was based upon 48 tests of significance, which are not reported in their article. To make matters worse, their tests were not independent. For example, in one set of analyses they looked "at the three days before and after, three days before, three days after, two days before and after, two days before, two days after, one day before and after, one day before, one to two days after, and one to three days after full moon" (Rotton, Kelly, and Frey 1983, 111; Rotton and Kelly 1985c). Applying more conventional test procedures, it was found that homicides were evenly distributed across phases of the moon.
In another study, Templer, Veleber, and Brooner (1982) claimed that a disproportionate number of traffic accidents occurred during the night hours of the three-day periods of the new moon and the full moon. However, as Kelly and Rotton (1983) noted, a larger number of the full and new-moon nights cited in the study fell on weekends. They suggested that apparent relationships might stem from the fact that more accidents occur on weekends than on weekdays. This suggestion was later confirmed by reanalysis of their data. Templer, Corgiat, and Brooner (1983) found that relationships vanished when they included controls for holidays, weekends, and months of the year. To their credit, they were willing to revise their original hypothesis: "It is likely that some, perhaps all, of the significant phase-behavior findings in the literature are a function of day of week or holiday or season artifact" (Templer et al. 1983, 994).
As these examples illustrate, a meta-analysis is no better than the studies on which it is based. In our meta-analysis, we took several steps to locate relevant articles and papers, including a computer search of the literature. Correcting for errors in original reports, we found that there was no consistent relationship between phases of the moon and acts usually described as lunatic. Taken as a whole, our results confirm the generally negative conclusions reached in prior reviews (Abell 1981; Cooke and Coles 1978; Campbell and Beets 1978; Kelly 1981). For every study that had found that people behave more strangely than usual when the moon is full, another had found that people's behavior was not affected.
Indeed, phases of the moon accounted for no more than 3/100 of I percent of the variance in activities usually termed lunacy. Estimating the percentage of unusual episodes that occurred during the quarter (25 percent) of the time when the moon is full, we found that about 25.7 percent of the episodes had occurred during full-moon periods. Of course there may be some who will claim that a difference of 0.7 percent is theoretically interesting. However, we are not impressed by a difference that would require 74,477 cases to attain significance in a conventional (i.e., chi-square) analysis.
Some might also object that we averaged over important differences when we combined data from different studies. To deal with this objection, we considered factors thought to mediate relationships between phases of the moon and behavior: sex of subject, type of lunar cycle (synodic vs. anomalistic or apogee-perigee), geographical features, publication practices, and type of lunacy (namely, mental hospital admissions, disturbed behavior in psychiatric settings, calls to crisis centers, homicides, and other criminal offenses). In only one of these subsidiary analyses did a difference approach significance. There was a slight (but not statistically significant) tendency for stronger relationships to appear in "pay" journals than refereed sources and unpublished theses.
Several additional studies have since come to our attention. In one of these, Russell and Dua (1983) examined relationships between phases of the moon and aggressive episodes during Western Hockey League games. They based their conclusions upon aggressive infractions recorded during the 1978-79 hockey season. After looking at several types of aggression, they concluded that "the present investigation offers no support for a lunar-aggression hypothesis" (p. 43). More recently, Russell and de Graaf (1986) replicated the earlier study on hockey infractions on a new season (1983-84) of the Western Hockey League. As in the earlier study they found no evidence of a relationship between hockey aggression and moon phase. In another study, MacMahon (1983) examined suicide data in the United States over a 7-year period. After plotting suicide rates by lunar phase (using a corrected 30-day cycle), she concluded that "deviations from the mean were small and present no obvious pattern" (p. 747). Likewise, Atlas (1984) uncovered no relationship between lunar phases and violent episodes in Florida prisons.
Finally, Sanduleak (1985) examined relationships between lunar cycle and homicides in Cleveland, Ohio. His study is noteworthy, because Lieber and Sherin (1972) previously claimed that they had uncovered a reliable relationship between lunar cycles and homicides in this city. They based this conclusion on data between 1958 and 1970, whereas Sanduleak covered the period from 1971 through 1981 in his follow-up study. Sanduleak's results are aptly summarized by the title of his article: "The Moon Is Acquitted of Murder in Cleveland."
On the other hand, Davenhill and Johnson (1979) claimed to have detected a relationship between various personality variables as measured by the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) and Cattell's 16 Personality Factors (PF) and changes in the lunar cycle. However, Startup and Russell (1985) criticized their research, pointing out that the Davenhill and Johnson study employed only a very small sample (12 males and 12 females) and only covered a short period of time (two lunar cycles). In addition, using 881 subjects over a two-year period and a more powerful statistical technique, Startup and Russell could replicate none of the findings obtained in the earlier study on the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ, a revised form of the EPI) and only one with the 16 PF. However, the minuscule size of the relationship precludes any practical use, and the authors caution that it would be unwise to attach theoretical significance to this finding until it can be replicated by others.
Mirabile (1981) has claimed that he uncovered "a dramatic relationship between the expression of psychopathology and the lunar cycle" (p. 8). This claim, which was repeated in. 1984, is based on an analysis of ratings made, by an unspecified number of nurses over a two-year period (1976-1978). Nurses rated 156 psychotic and 104 nonpsychotic patients on 31 behavioral scales. It is not clear how often patients were rated, nor does Mirabile present any reliability data for his raters. Although more than 230,000 ratings were obtained, only 52,000 records were analyzed, owing to computer limitations. However, this claim was based upon inappropriate analyses and violations of a number of statistical assumptions.1 Belief in Lunar Effects
Rotton and Kelly (1985b) found that one-half (49.7%) of the students in a Florida university agreed that some people behave strangely when the moon is full. Similar levels of beliefs have been recorded for students at a Canadian university (Russell and Dua 1983) and in Singapore (Otis and Kou 1984). What, accounts for belief in lunar effects? Although we have only begun to pursue this question, we suspect that belief in lunar effects can be traced, to three factors. One of these can be termed media effects. Another is misconceptions about physical factors. The third, and in some way to the moon when they witness unusual and apparently senseless types of behavior.Media Effects
Newspapers, television programs, and radio shows favor individuals who claim that a full moon influences behavior. Arnold Lieber, one of those favoring the lunar hypothesis, has appeared on several talk-shows, including the nationally syndicated "In Search of. . ." As recently as November 8, 1984, his research was highlighted on ABC's "20/20." This supposedly objective report began with its host, Hugh Downs, suggesting that lunar effects provided evidence for astrology: "The moon's effects are legendary and, according to some, the most obvious example of astrology—that ancient belief that has in the past twenty years become big business."2 Likewise, Mirabile's (1984) presentation at the Institute of Child Development was widely disseminated in newspapers throughout the United States. Finally, on August 27, 1984, Ann Landers answered a reader's question by telling him, "It's true . . . some people get loonier than others when the moon is full."
Newspapers, of course, are in the business of telling people what happened. "The moon was full, and nothing happened" may be accurate, but it is not a very interesting headline. In research on curiosity and information-seeking, it is something of a truism that "good news is no news" (Rotton, Heslin, and Blake 1983, 49). When reporters call us on the phone, they would probably be happier if we assure them by saying, "The streets are full of loonies when the moon is full." Unfortunately, when one scientist doesn't give them a quotation that can be turned into an interesting headline, they can always find an "expert" who will provide the quotation they need.
For a reporter interested in writing a story, it is not hard to find somebody who will talk about an uncle, say, who acted peculiarly when the moon was full. (Who doesn't have a peculiar uncle?) Those who' defend the lunar hypothesis are not above resorting to case' histories and personal anecdotes. For example, after failing to uncover a statistical relationship between the moon's apogee-perigee (far-near) cycle and behavior, Lieber and Sherin (1972) indicated that a "perusal of official narratives on individual incidents of homicides indicates that homicides occurring during these periods are often of a particularly bizarre or ruthless nature" (p. 105). As Meyers (1983, 120) has observed, "anecdotes are often more persuasive than factual data." To dramatize the supposed effects of the full moon, for example, "20/20" showed pictures of Miami police being called out to keep a young man from killing himself. The announcer's voiceover:
Even before the moon has risen and the sun still commands the sky, it starts: A confused young man has a cocked pistol to his head. The specials the most interesting, is cognitive biases that lead individuals to look response team is in place. If the subject points the gun at anyone else, he will be shot. . . . There are scenes like this somewhere every day, but in Dade County. Florida, at least, the special response team call-outs to incidents like this peaked at the time of the full moon—month after month.3Misconceptions
Given the moon's obvious effects upon ocean tides, it is not surprising that scholars as well as students have jumped to the conclusion that it might also affect people's behavior. "If the moon can do that to oceans," our students say, "imagine what it can do to us!" In a similar vein, Lieber (1978) advocates a biological tide hypothesis. He contends (p. 115): "Because the [human] body [like the earth] is composed of 80 percent water and 20 percent 'land' or solids, it is reasonable to assume that gravity exerts a direct effect on the water mass of the body, just as it does on the water mass of the planet."
Lieber's analogy fails because it is too weak to warrant the inference he wants to draw. As Campbell (1982, 421) points out: "Only the surface of the earth has this 80:20 ratio . . . yet gravity involves attraction between three-dimensional structures (and their total masses, not just surface composition). Hence, the argument based on a similar water-solid ratio between earth and the human body is 'untenable.' " In addition, the moon causes tides only in unbounded bodies of water like the world's oceans (Abell 1981; Campbell 1982; Culver, Kelly, and Rotton 1986). Bounded bodies of water, such as land-locked lakes, unless they are very large (like the Great Lakes), are negligibly influenced. Clearly the water contained in the human body falls into the "bounded waters" category.
Even if we surmount these problems—for example, by assuming an idealized human who is uniformly covered by a layer of unbounded perspiration—gravitational mechanics still offers no support for the idea of biological tides. The expression for the tidal force FTIDE to which an object of radius R will be subjected can be readily derived from the principles of classical mechanics: FTIDE = 2GRM/d3 where G is the universal gravitation constant, M is the mass of the tide-raising object, and d is the distance between the center of mass of two objects involved. A comparison of the tide-raising capabilities F1, and F2 of two separate objects on a given person can then be written as
where M1, and M2 are respective masses and d1 and d2 the respective distances of the tide-raising objects. As an example, suppose we wish to compare the tidal forces of a mother, the attending doctor, and the building on a new-born child with that of the moon. If the hospital is located on the side of the earth's surface nearest the moon, then the moon's center of mass will be about 378,000 km distant. Assuming the mother's distance from the child while she holds it is 15 cm or so, then a 55 kg mother will exert
or 12 million times as much tidal force on her child as the moon. Calculations for the doctor and the fractional mass of the building contained within a radius equal to the child-building center of mass distance will yield similar results, which are shown in Figure 1. In fact, it can be easily shown that we would have far more tidal concerns from a downtown area with lots of large-mass buildings and crowded streets than from the sun or the moon.
The biological-tide hypothesis fails on a number of other counts. In our review (Rotton and Kelly 1985a) we found six studies that have looked at the distance of the moon from the earth and various types of behavior. Only one obtained significant results, and these were contrary to the biological-tide theory: More undesirable behavior occurred when the moon was farthest from the earth. In addition, Lieber argued that we would expect lunar-related behaviors to be more pronounced at the Equator than at more distant latitudes and to have an amplitude variation in keeping with the times of lunar perigee and apogee. We found no evidence for this contention in our review. Sanduleak (1985) did not obtain significant results when he examined relationships between homicidal assaults and a tidal index that was proportional to the magnitude of the combined lunar and solar tide action. Finally, Russell and de Graaf (1986) found no relationship between the distance of the moon from the earth and aggression in hockey games.
Although Lieber and Sherin (1972) originally attributed supposed correlations between phases of the moon and behavior to water imbalances, Lieber (1978), Katzeff (1981), and others have proposed competing hypotheses.
Garzino, for example, has speculated about ion effects:
Because the moon modulates the earth's magnetic field, the entering ions follow a lunar cycle. During the full-moon phase, positive ions come down to earth in great abundance. But positive charged ions are now suspected by some scientists to create depression and irritability by increasing levels of serotonin in the nervous system. Serotonin is a mood-modifying chemical, a "downer." [Garzino 1982, 408, italics added. See also, Abel 1976; Katzeff1981; Ossenkopp and Ossenkopp 1973.]Relative tidal forces exerted on a new-born babe by the moon, its mother, a doctor, and the hospital building. Figures are derived from the formula for the relative tide-raising capabilities of two objects, F1, and F2, with masses of m1 and m2, respectively: F1/F2 × (m1/m2) (d2/d3)3. For example, the following estimate was obtained for a 55 kg mother standing 15 cm (.15 m) from her child on the earth surface nearest to the moon (mass = 7.35 × 1022) when its distance is approximately 378,000 km: F1/F2 = (55 kg/7.35 × 1022kg) (3.78 × 108m/.15m)3 or 1.2 × 107. That is, the mother's tidal force is 12 million times more than the moon's. Note: Figure adapted from R. Culver and P. Ianna, The Gemini Syndrome (1984, Prometheus), by permission of the authors and publisher.
Although early research on air ions could be criticized on a number of grounds—for example, use of shoddy equipment that produced ozone as well as air ions—more recent studies have demonstrated that people's moods are altered by very high levels of ionized air (Baron, Russell, and Arms 1985; Charry and Hawkinshire 1981). There is fairly compelling evidence that the effects of negative ions are beneficial (e.g., improved mood and better performance on simple tasks), whereas the effects of positive ions appear to be less benign (Fisher, Bell, and Baum 1984). However, these effects depend upon personality factors, such as excitability, and are only found when individuals are exposed to very high concentrations of ions in a controlled (i.e., laboratory) setting.
Although positive ions are more prevalent when the moon is full, positive ion concentrations related to lunar variations are small when compared with those related to air-conditioning and air pollution (Campbell 1982). One is much more likely to feel the effects of positive air ions while working in an enclosed building. However, the question is not "Is there an ion effect?" It is, instead, "Are ion levels high enough when the moon is full to produce effects attributed to them?" The answer to this question appears to be no. Gilbert (1980) measured ion levels in a school for mentally retarded children. He found no evidence for the ion hypothesis. Indeed, in his study, he observed more disturbed behavior when the moon was new than when it was full.
Although ion effects appear to be mediated by serotonin, we have not been able to locate any study that has examined correlations between lunar cycles and serotonin levels. The absence of research on physiological processes is, in many ways, surprising. Some of those who favor the lunar hypothesis are physicians, such as Lieber and Mirabile, who often speculate about physiological processes. Why have they not obtained blood or urine samples to determine if there is, in fact, a lunar component in hormone levels? As Asimov (1985, 8) has observed, such evidence would be much more convincing than statistical analyses of homicide and crime rates: ". . . If these rhythms affect such things as our response to drugs or our tendency to violence or depression, then the rhythms must affect our internal workings. There must be a fourteen-day rise and fall in hormone production; or such a rise and fall in the activity of our immune system, or our cerebral drug receptors, or various aspects of our neurochemistry."
For several years now, investigators have been monitoring individuals' biochemical levels in hospitals and physiological laboratories in research aimed at answering other questions (e.g., Reinberg and Smolensky 1983). In most cases, they use spectral analysis to detect day-to-day and hour-tohour changes in biological assays and electrodermal activities.4 Given the large number of scientists involved in this research, it is hard to believe that a 14-day cycle could go undetected. Those who favor the lunar hypothesis often cite Brown's work on the activity patterns of oysters (Brown 1954) and hamsters (Brown and Park 1967). Some of these same authors have published books on biological rhythms (e.g., Garzino 1982). Strangely enough, they do not report anything resembling a 29-day cycle in human activity levels. Given the large number of studies done (in both the United States and West Germany) on the effects of social isolation (e.g., Luce 1971; Minors and Waterhouse 1981), it is surprising that none of them have reported that subjects act restlessly, talk to themselves, or eat or drink more when the moon is full.Cognitive Biases
A number of cognitive biases contribute to belief in lunar effects. One is selective perception: Individuals are more likely to notice events that support their beliefs than those that do not. Further, individuals are more likely to look for a cause when they notice unusual behavior. Because the moon is conspicuous and its absence is not, it will be an object commonly invoked to explain odd events and behavior. When something odd happens, what other object is so impressively in view as a full moon? However, in research that is now being done at Florida International University, we have found that students do no better than chance when they are asked to guess the moon's phase. As Sanduleak (1985, 6) observed, it does not seem likely that "even the most ardent proponent of a lunar effect could specify the phase of the moon. . . . I have tested audiences and found that only a very small percentage could." Social psychologists have found that most of us look to others when we have to make decisions (i.e., what they call "social reality"), and we often act like "cognitive misers"—that is, we look for simple solutions and base our decisions upon the first piece of information we receive (Fiske and Taylor 1983; Hansen 1980). Thus, we have to wonder how many individuals check to see if the moon is full when an unusual event occurs and somebody says, "Must be a full moon tonight."
Selective recall is another bias that contributes to belief in lunar effects. We often recall positive instances and forget negative ones (Nisbett and Ross 1980). Individuals may recall all the full-moon nights when something untoward happened while forgetting the uneventful full-moon nights and the many more non-full-moon nights when they witnessed unusual behavior.
Selective attention and recall contribute to illusory correlations (Rotton 1985a). Individuals find it hard to believe that events are random and unrelated, especially when they vary over time. For some, "Everything is related to everything else" is not just an ecological slogan; it is, instead, a principle that guides their thinking and leads them to interpret randomly distributed events as confirming their beliefs. As Meyers (1983, 129) has observed: "When we believe a correlation exists between two things, we are more likely to notice and recall confirming than disconfirming instances."
Illusory correlation is a special instance of a more general and confirmatory bias (Mahoney and DeMonbreun 1978; Snyder and Swann 1978; Watson and Johnson-Laird, 1972). Most of us seek data that support our beliefs, preconceptions, and hypotheses. It is commonly assumed that scientists are mainly interested in obtaining data that will support their theories and hypotheses. Unfortunately, as philosophers (e.g., Hempel 1966; Salmon 1984) have suggested, thinking rarely advances when one adopts a confirmatory strategy. We learn a great deal more when our hypotheses are shown to be inadequate.
Yet another bias is selective exposure, which leads believers to watch TV shows and read books that confirm their beliefs. Although research on the selective-exposure hypothesis has produced mixed results, Otis (1979) found belief in one paranormal phenomenon (UFOs) predicts movie preferences. In her study, individuals standing in line to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind were more willing to endorse pro-UFO items than were individuals waiting to see other movies (specifically, The Gauntlet and Saturday Night Fever). There is evidence that beliefs in lunar effects comprise part of a constellation of belief in paranormal phenomena. Rotton and Kelly (1985b) found that students who scored lower on tests of logical ability, and those who believed in reincarnation, ESP, and astrology were more likely to endorse beliefs in lunar effects.
Any of these biases may act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to actions that confirm people's beliefs (Russell and de Graaf 1986). For example, if police officers believe that a full moon causes criminal behavior, they might become more vigilant and make more arrests on full-moon than other nights (Frey, Rotton, and Barry 1979). In this regard, it is interesting to note that Rotton, Kelly, and Elortegui (1986) found that police officers were more likely to endorse items indicative of belief in lunar effects than a haphazard sample of pedestrians (the proverbial "man and woman on the street").Conclusion
This article outlines the results of a meta-analysis of 37 studies and several more recent studies that examined lunar variables and mental behavior. Our review supports the view that there is no causal relationship between lunar phenomena and human behavior. We also speculate on why belief in such relationships is prevalent in our society. A lack of understanding of physics, psychological biases, and slanted media reporting are suggested as some possible reasons.
It is important to note that there are two hurdles to overcome before any findings on lunar variables and human behavior are deserving of public attention. The first hurdle is that reliable (i.e., replicable) findings need to be reported by independent investigators. The second hurdle is that the relationship should not be a trivial one. The lunar hypothesis fails on both counts.Notes
1) Mirabile based his claim on a computer analysis, which he graciously attached to a letter sent to the first author on November 30, 1984. Mirabile assigned patients to one of five levels of one factor in terms of their degree of motion sickness. In addition to this between-subject factor, his design consisted of "four seasons centered on the solstices and equinoxes and ten intervals in the lunar monthly cycle" (Mirabile 1981, 7). As he correctly notes, this yields 5 (motion sickness) × 4 (seasons) × 10 (lunar cycles) or 200 cells for comparison. So far, so good. What we have here is a traditional split-plot design. Unfortunately, ignoring the distinction between-group and within-subject factors, Mirabile concluded that each cell in his design contained 156 observations for the psychotic group of patients. As a consequence, the error term in his design was an amalgamation of heterogenous sources of variance (i.e., subjects within groups, lunar cycle × subject within groups, season × subject within groups, etc.). Even if we assume this type of pooling is appropriate, we cannot ignore the fact that Mirabile's F ratio for lunar cycles was based on 9 and 31,000 degrees of freedom! With so many degrees of freedom, we would be surprised if lunar cycles had not attained "significance." To take another example, Mirabile attempted to interpret a three-way interaction after obtaining a "significant" F of 1.29. With 128 and 31,000 degrees of freedom, his three-way interaction would probably have attained significance if one of the nurses in his study had yawned.
Even if one ignores those statistical errors, lunar cycles accounted for a very small percentage of the variance in paranoid behavior. Mirable (1981) obtained an F of 10.2442 for the factor of lunar cycles in his design. Cohen's (1977) "effect size index" (f) for this F-ratio, with 9(dfn) and 31,000 (dfe) degrees of freedom is (dfnF/dfe)1/2 = 9(10.2442)/31000)1/2, or 0.002741. In other words, his lunar factor accounted for a little more than 0.296 of one percent of the variance in ratings of paranoid behavior, since eta2 = f2/(1+f2) = 0.002963. We will confess to being gratified by the fact that this figure is close to our previously stated estimate of 0.3 of one percent for relationships in this area.
2. These quotes were transcribed from a cassette recording of the November 8, 1984, broadcast.
3. See note 2.
4. Any complex curve can be described in terms of a number of pure sine-waves that differ in amplitude, frequency (cycles per unit time), and initial phase or starting time. Spectral analysis is simply a mathematical procedure that allows an investigator to describe a wave in terms of pure waves. As Rotton (1985b) has noted, it is ideally suited for uncovering "hidden periodicities" in behavior.References
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Some say the case for psychic ability has been made, others say it hasn’t. Yet others say someday it will be, or will never be. In 130 years, has there been progress in psychical research?
Once upon a time, a parapsychologist and a skeptic—Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman—sustained a five-year long, mostly-cordial, formal discussion regarding the best evidence that supports the reality of psi. Mostly cordial! Imagine that. This was not a fairy tale, it really happened in the 1980s.
The Honorton-Hyman “Joint Communique” was published in the Journal of Parapsychology in 1986. I thought this was fascinating, two serious researchers on opposite sides of the proverbial fence, working together. I wanted details on how this landmark paper developed and was received. I obtained a copy of The Elusive Quarry (1989) (known hereafter as TEQ) by Ray Hyman, the “counter-advocate” to Honorton’s “advocate,” and studied it cover to cover. This piece will discuss the points and themes that recurred in that collection of essays that included Hyman’s writing and critiques to it.
When I was done with TEQ, I was left wondering if anything had changed since 1989. Had psychical research improved as a result?
I was seeing continued animosity from the new crew of parapsychology researchers like Daryl Bem, Dead Radin, and Rupert Sheldrake, but didn’t hear of impressive results. There exists a suitable sequel to The Elusive Quarry, an anthology entitled Debating Psychic Experience (2010) (known hereafter as DPE) edited by Krippner and Friedman, which contained commentary by not only Ray Hyman, but other advocates and counter-advocates of parapsychology. It was through analysis of these two volumes that I think I now understand how the subject remains totally messed-up. So, I will share because it’s important to know what we don’t know, why we don’t know it, and what to think about today’s science-y claims about psychic mediums, remote viewing and other extraordinary human potential.
The title The Elusive Quarry refers to the lack of a repeatable experimental result in parapsychology. The study of psi by psychical researchers, known in contemporary-speak as parapsychologists, has quite a history that formally began in the 1800s, the still-early days of science.
Psi is a term not used much anymore. Many of today’s modern paranormal investigators aren’t familiar with it. Psi comprises all the interactions between organisms and their environment that appear to transcend current knowledge of physics and biology. Notice this is a negative definition, just like paranormal—it’s anything that isn’t thought of as normal by the modern yardstick of science.
Today, we split psi into skills such as extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK, formerly telekinesis), mediumship (communication with the dead), and general psychic abilities (clairvoyance, etc.) that people claim to have.
The Society of Psychical Research (SPR) was founded in the U.K. in 1882 by scientific men. They already believed they had seen good evidence of life after death and organized in order to make the field reputable and to demonstrate to the world that such human potential exists.
Long story short, it didn’t happen. After testing many subjects (see D. Blum’s Ghost Hunters, 2007), they found a gaggle of fraudsters using parlor tricks and skills that were indeed strange but not paranormal. Some SPR members endorsed psychic mediums as genuine that were later exposed as fraudulent. This is when excuses began in earnest in the field. I’ll get into the reasoning and excuses advocates used and continue to use, but first, a bit more about the history.
After the heyday of SPR and American SPR (1884), though both are still going, the next phase of parapsychology surrounded the work of J.B. Rhine. Rhine moved parapsychology into the laboratory using Zener cards and controlled experiments. The Parapsychological Association was founded in 1957 as an attempt to “to advance parapsychology as a science, to disseminate knowledge of the field, and to integrate the findings with those of other branches of science.” Rhine’s work was considered credible, and the field did gain recognition by the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science journal).
While Rhine’s methods tightened up the testing standards, the results were not all that advocates had hoped. Replication of the experiments, a key to scientific acceptance of a phenomenon, was not forthcoming.
Post Rhine, there came people like Robert Jahn who founded the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) that ran from 1979 to 2007. He used random number generators in experiments to see if psi could affect the results.
Then there was a trend to study “remote viewing” for possible military and other uses. This term came into use in the 1970s by physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff at the Stanford Research Institute. The methods and procedures were loose and this gave encouraging results. But ultimately, it did not amount to solid evidence of paranormal-based psi.
Parapsychology was invited into the circle of respectability from the 50s to the 90s as they were affiliated (often not formally) with credible academic institutions. Yet, the field was not on solid ground. 132 years after the first president of the SPR stated that there was proof of this human potential, each generation of psi researchers has attempted to achieve that standard. What occurred was a tradition of changing paradigms and ever-hopeful researchers, but no tradition of cumulative evidence. Counter-advocates argue that the evidence is even eroding as the years go by.
I was intrigued to find that the conclusion of counter-advocates in the DPE volume was not that there is nothing there but instead that there is something complex there that is interesting but not compelling as paranormal evidence. The advocates obviously and vociferously disagree.The Statistical Anomaly
In the 1960s, the best evidence for psi was said to be the Ganzfeld results derived from a particular means of sensory deprivation to test for ESP. It’s frustrating and amusing to observe how two different people or groups of people can look at the same data and conclude very different things from it.
This is what happened with the Ganzfeld data set of forty-two experiments. Charles Honorton was happy to provide Hyman with the data, every paper that went into the database, so Hyman could make his own assessment. Honorton’s crunching of the data indicated a 55% success rate in achieving overall significance in the primary measure of psi (TEQ, p. 20-62). Hyman, having a critical eye and not invested in the belief, found problems with all 42 studies including randomization, missing records, and possible (inadvertent) cueing that might have skewed the results. In the field in general, he found the file drawer effect, where non-significant studies were not included.
Honorton agreed in the Joint Communique that there were problems, and this “best” data set was not the golden proof. Once Hyman discarded those data that he found to be very unreliable, there remained a smaller but still significant statistical anomaly, a deviation from a chance baseline. What was the anomaly? What did it mean? Departure from chance was a fact, but it was not an explanation.
It wasn’t proof of psi because psi did not yet fit into any explanatory system. It was a mystery effect—unreliable, elusive. Advocates saw all outliers and deviation as paranormal. That interpretation, while convenient, is unfalsifiable.
If psi was the explanation for everything odd, how could you predict what was really psi and what wasn’t? Advocates saw psi as a scientific anomaly, but what if it was instead a kind of experimental error we hadn't noticed? Hyman described that ESP behaved pretty much like an experimental error, not a definite phenomenon. That’s not a good sign.Excuses, Excuses
Psi researchers accept that there is something called psi out there to find. It’s sporadic, weak and ephemeral nature is frustrating. An early psychical researcher, William James, thought that God had made this phenomenon deliberately baffling.
Evading scientific scrutiny became a characteristic of psi itself. The key problem was always lack of replication. A single experiment cannot be definitive. There must be many that converge upon something robust and reliable. This was not happening. Many insignificant studies were placed in the file drawer while this or that experiment provided hope. When studies didn’t go well, advocates looked for a hidden effect—perhaps sitters had guessed the card right before or right after the chosen card. Adjustments sometimes snatched a success out of the jaws of failure.
Hyman called their methods of retrofitting and adjustment the “patchwork quilt fallacy” (after Ronald Giere) where the hypotheses, conditions, and assumptions are connected in a way that seems to imply the facts. Psi is constructed just as it is observed by advocates. It can’t be predicted. This fallacy works well for conspiracy theorists to connect unrelated facts under an umbrella idea. It’s contrived.
DPE was, I felt, an attempt at another form of joint communique between the advocates and counter-advocates. They provided their arguments to each other and replies were allowed. This time, it didn't go well. There was little productive communication or agreement. There were two groups seeing the same situation very differently, often talking past each other.
In DPE, the advocates are highly defensive, pulling out mischaracterizations and ad hominem attacks. Current researchers, like Chris Carter, wrote messy, erroneous characterizations of skeptical thought and failed to make anything resembling a coherent case. Dean Radin cited a few cases of scientific prejudice against parapsychology, as if that bolsters evidence for psi.
Radin also volunteered some stupendous predictions—if we look for paranormal effects in other areas, we would find them, he said. By 2015, we will see breakthroughs in psi application from the Chinese and possibly Russian researchers.
Hang on? Are there quantum physicists seeing psi effects? No. Should physicists attribute anomalies to psi instead of unknown error by the experimenter or equipment? No.
The advocate contributions exhibited a strong trend of anti-materialism. People like Jahn follow the musings of Rhine, in wanting to rid the field of scientific materialism. Jahn states that the rules should be changed. This field is somehow special so it should not have to meet the same scientific standards. This jaw-dropping assertion is an admission of desperation. Psi research is motivated by a deep belief in the phenomenon, not a quest for the best answers. You can sense their frustration—over a century of work and no progress achieved. The desperation is obvious.
The advocates are annoyed with the counter-advocates’ unrelenting criticism, and they fail to answer it. They can’t answer it. They wish for the counter-advocates to accept the reality of psi and just shut up already. Their current platform is to use meta-analysis, pooling many studies together, like with the Ganzfeld database. The counter-advocates say that the data is intriguing but not compelling, and there are problems with the studies that are included in meta-analyses. Meta-analysis is not a substitute for reproducibility.
Some of the questions that remain glaringly obvious to the skeptical-minded are as follows:
Why can’t these effects be repeated?
Why haven’t we identified psi effects in other experimental fields?
Why is there still no agreed upon framework or structure to explain it?
The excuses have piled up high: The displacement effect, psi-missing, decline effect, scientific prejudice and pathological disbelief by skeptics—oh, come on!
Is psi elusive? Or is it just not there at all? How many negative studies must be accrued before the advocates will conclude there is nothing left to study? The major labs have closed, there are scant funding sources. What now?
It is time for advocates to reassess. The shift is now to anomalistic psychology.
Anomalistic psychology (AP), practiced by academic psychologists such as Dr. Richard Wiseman, Dr. Stuart Richie, and Dr. Christopher French, is an approach to the same issues from an entirely different perspective. Parapsychologists seek evidence for psi. Anomalistic psychologists seek to find explanations for the same experiences without assuming psi exists.
The transition can be seen in the Koestler Parapsychology unit, which appears to reflect the evolution of the traditional parapsychology view from 1985 when it originated to a more AP-focused research program today. AP is on the rise—offered as an option in degree programs and the topic of conferences, symposia, books and journal publications—contrary to parapsychology.Moving Forward
The great researcher into the behavior of electricity and magnetism, Michael Faraday, put his work on hold in 1853 to examine mediums. He was unimpressed. Several researchers who came to inquire about psi, either as an advocate or undecided, left because there was nothing of substance, nowhere to go. Science does not ignore data, even that of extraordinary claims. But if the data are not good, not reliable, not robust, and not reproducible, it’s not “ready for prime time” and will not be accepted as mainstream.
To move forward, improvements must be made such as acceptance of and accountability for constructive critique, adherence to high standards, and maybe even an established end point. A well-articulated theory for psi must be derived, but first there must be a consensus that psi exists! That's the fundamental problem to which there still is no resolution.
Advocates cry that the counter-advocates create a cacophony that prevents making sense of the data. I don’t know what that means—it makes no sense and it sounds like another excuse. Science is debated, sometimes very loudly (so I hear from paleontologists), and there is plenty to debate about here. The skeptical counter-advocates are correct to apply caution when dealing with a concept that attempts a patchwork quilt explanation while unraveling a whole pile of stuff we had already adequately explained.
We are justified in not buying into a nebulous, poorly-defined idea that does not mesh with other areas of knowledge. Advocates and counter-advocates cannot seem to settle disagreements with logical arguments and move forward as one unit. Advocates seem to know that the acceptance they seek can never come by following the stringent rules of other sciences. Therefore, the reality of psi will exist only to parapsychologists, and remain elusive to the rest of science, unworthy of attention.References
French, C. 2011. “The rise of anomalistic psychology—and the fall of parapsychology?” Online at http://blogs.nature.com/soapboxscience/2011/12/19/the-rise-of-anomalistic-psychology-%E2%80%93-and-the-fall-of-parapsychology
Hyman, R. 1989. The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research.
Krippner, S.C. and H.L. Friedman. 2010. Debating Psychic Experience: Human Potential or Human Illusion?
Richard Wiseman holds Britain’s only professorship in the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. His research into a range of topics including luck, the psychology of change, deception, and persuasion has been published in the world’s leading academic journals, while his psychology-based YouTube videos have received over 200 million views.
He is the author of several books that have been translated into over thirty languages, including The Luck Factor, Quirkology, Rip It Up, and the international best seller 59 Seconds. He’ll be returning to the skeptic conference The Amazing Meeting in 2014.
Based on exciting new research, mass-participation experiments, and the world’s largest archive of dream reports, Richard Wiseman’s new book, Night School, reveals the truth about sleep and dreaming. It aims to help you discover how to learn information while you sleep, find out what your dreams really mean, and get the best night’s sleep of your life.
Richard Wiseman: I guess most of my work is getting out there into the real world and looking at issues that are relevant to people’s lives, and I think most psychologists should be doing that. Lots of them are, but it’s always on a slightly unusual, kind of quirky angle, so when it came to something like sleep, I was instantly interested and thinking, “Right. Well, dreaming is fascinating. Is it possible to control your dreams?” so I did some work on that. I’m always trying to find that slightly quirky angle!
Kylie Sturgess: Your new book is Night School, and it’s incredible in terms of all the lessons and ideas it gets across to people in terms of sleep and dreams. What got you into researching the topic in the first place?
Wiseman: Well, actually, this one came from a rather strange place in that I used to suffer from night terrors—and if any of your listeners suffer from them as well, they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!
It’s when you sit up in the middle of the night; you don’t wake up, you just sit up normally, and you open your eyes, and you are convinced there is some kind of demonic entity, or something very evil, in the room, and sometimes with your eyes you follow that entity around, and sometimes you’ll scream, and leap out of bed, and so on.
I was having those on a fairly regular basis, once or twice a month, and I just became fascinated by what was going on in my mind, because as soon as you’ve had one, you go straight back to sleep.
You wake up your partner, if you’re sleeping with somebody, so they’re in actual waking state, and they’re furious because now they’ve been awoken from deep sleep and it disturbs their night, but actually for yourself, if you experience them, you go straight back in deep sleep.
I thought, “My goodness. Isn’t that amazing that that’s happening in my mind?” I assume there isn’t actually a demonic entity in my bedroom, although I’ve never actually gotten that possibility checked out.
The more I got into it, the more I realized that psychologists had done a lot of work in sleep and dreaming and understand how to get a good night’s sleep, but that work really hadn’t gone out into the public. The book is an attempt to put it out there.
Sturgess: It’s really cool that you are fascinated rather than terrified!
Wiseman: Yes! Well, actually, for the person experiencing them, you don’t remember very much about them! It really is more for your partner, it’s far more terrifying, but they have kind of an interesting experience.
Sturgess: How big a mystery is sleep? I hear occasionally about recent research into it, but has there been a lot done on this subject?
Wiseman: There’s been a huge amount—and I think the biggest myth about sleep is that you simply turn off at night, that not very much happens in your brain and body, and then you turn back on in the morning, and you get up and get on with your life, and it’s that notion that the only thing that’s important to us is our waking life.
That has really emerged in the last couple of decades. We’ve been pushing sleep right into the boundary of our lives. We’ve been saying it’s not very important, we have to minimize it, and the really important thing is to get on with waking life, and the research shows that that really isn’t the case.
Even going back to the 1930s, when people started to do sleep research, they realized that even the smallest amount of sleep deprivation has a massive negative impact on the brain and body, so yeah, this stuff has been going on a long time, and we’ve known that it’s really important to our well‑being.
Sturgess: In general, what makes for good sleep?
Wiseman: All sorts of factors. Some of them are physical in terms of having a room at the right temperature, and no outside distractions, and so on, and others are psychological in terms of being in a relaxed state, and not being too anxious, and distracting your mind if there are thoughts going through it, and so on.
I think what’s really fascinating is this notion of us going through this very regimented set of events each night, which is called the sleep cycle, so it’s where you start off in waking state, you go through into stage one, stage two, which is light sleep, which is where there’s all sorts of psychological well‑being associated with that in terms of burning in important memories into the brain from the day and losing information that’s not important to us.
Then you go into deep sleep, which is really a physical repair of the body, wear and tear on the body, and then you come up into the first dream of the night, which will last about five minutes or so, and then you repeat that ninety‑minute cycle again and again with the dreams becoming longer, the time in deep sleep becoming shorter and shorter, and pretty much everyone will do that.
We all did it last night; we’ll all do it tomorrow night, yet we normally have no conscious awareness of it, so the book takes people into that journey.
Sturgess: If there are ninety‑minute cycles that are vital, then when’s the optimal time to nap? Is it a good idea to do napping?
Wiseman: Napping is a quite controversial one! In terms of circadian rhythm, which is the twenty-four‑hour cycle of when you feel alert and then a bit more sleepy, then certainly, obviously, at night, you feel sleep, assuming that rhythm is operating properly.
It’s also true that you get a drop around about 1:00, 2:00 in the afternoon, so there’s quite a few researchers that argue it is good to take a twenty‑minute or thirty‑minute nap, something like that.
You shouldn’t be napping for much longer than that because that then starts to put you into a deeper sleep, and it’s not great if you wake up from that, and that can have an impact on the quality of nighttime sleep as well, but certainly taking some kind of downtime during the day is a good idea, and research shows even a short nap, even five, six minutes, will make you more alert and focused.
Sturgess: Of course, when we’re talking about psychology, Freud is one of the big names that comes to mind; dreams and studying dreams. Do dreams really give us insights to the mind or is it just an old‑fashioned theory?
Wiseman: No, they absolutely do, and in a way, Freud was completely right to focus on them, to realize there was something going on!
The problem with Freud is that he got so much wrong; it’s incredible that you talk to people about psychology and they still mention Freud as if he’s a kind of current thinker, when actually a lot of his ideas have been completely sidelined by modern‑day psychology.
In terms of dreaming, yes, he realized that it was vital, that it wasn’t all just
“random froth on the beer of sleep,” as he phrased it. There was something going on.
The Freudian model of mind was that you have thoughts in your head which are socially unacceptable, so they might be sexual thoughts or aggressive thoughts. You kind of suppress them. You push them out of consciousness and that requires a mental energy.
Then during the day, if you make a Freudian slip, one of those thoughts kind of comes out, and the truth comes out as it were, and dreams are another way of getting at the unconscious because during dreams, according to Freud, these unconscious thoughts bubble up and then you can get access into what’s going on in people’s minds.
That really has been discredited as a model. It’s not as if every single dream is about your repressed sexual needs and so on. Instead, though, what we’re seeing is that when you wake people up in sleep labs throughout the course of the night, and you ask them about their dreams, a very particular pattern emerges, which is the early dreams are really quite terrifying. They are particularly negative.
As the night goes on, even though you’re dreaming about the same topics, the dreams become more positive, emotionally, so the argument is that we’re kind of working on our worries and concerns during the night by either going over the experience again and again, and knocking the emotional edges off them, or we’re looking for solutions.
Yes, dreams are helping us. They are vital to our psychological well‑being.
Sturgess: That’s good to know because sometimes I have some very wacky dreams and I think, “OK, what’s going on here? I mean, seriously…”
Wiseman: We tend to remember our bizarre dreams, but actually very few of our dreams are bizarre! Most of them, around about 90 percent of them, are deeply dull. For the book, I spoke to sleep experts who spent their entire lives waking people up from a dream state and asking for dream reports, and they said, “You know, it really is quite dull. You wake people and go, ‘What was happening?’ and they say, ‘I was just in the office sorting out some invoices.’”
Most of our dreams really are a continuation of everyday life, and therefore not that interesting—it’s just we tend to remember the bizarre ones.
Sturgess: Reporting on dreams is something that you even created an app for—DreamOn. That’s one of the things I like about your work, that people can take part in experiments that then inform the research, whether it be luck, magic, productivity. What were some of the findings from the app that you created for the book?
Wiseman: DreamOn is still out there—it’s for the iPhone, it’s all free to download, and it was a very ambitious idea. When we launched it, lots of sleep researchers said, “This is never going to work. Good luck to you, but this will never work”!
The idea was very simple, that before you would go to bed, you would open the app, you would choose when you wanted to wake up, so it might be 8:30 in the morning or something, and then you would say, “OK, tonight, just before I wake up, I would like to be dreaming about walking along the beach, or going for a cycle through the city,” or whatever it is. There are various options given to you.
Then, in a half‑an‑hour or so before you woke up, the app very quietly played in what we called a soundscape: sounds which reflected the sort of the dream you wanted to have, so if you wanted to walk along the beach, it was the sound of waves lapping against the sand and so on.
Then in the morning, when you were woken up by the alarm, you were asked to send in a dream report, you type that in, sent it off to us, and we have collected millions of dream reports.
The app was downloaded about a half‑a‑million times and lots of people used it several times throughout the year. We could then look to see whether these soundscapes really did influence people’s dreams, gave them sweeter dreams, and the answer is they absolutely did, so particularly the nature soundscape, which has the sounds of birds chirping in the trees, when people selected that and were exposed to those sounds, they had a much nicer and much more pleasant dream.
It really matters because that last dream of the night dictates your mood in the morning. Although you may not even remember the dream, it still has that important effect, so we have the possibility now of getting people to wake up in a better mood.
There is a massive relationship between depression and dreaming, with depressives dreaming far more than most and having quite negative dreams, as they try to work through their worries and concerns, so we have that possibility of maybe going in and making their dreams a bit more pleasant.
There’s also other research and findings on YouTube—we have millions of views. In fact, for the launch of the book, we also put a track which is scientifically designed to help people get to sleep, which apparently works very well with babies is some of the feedback we’re getting, so it’s a very soothing hour‑long track which is on there that people can listen to for free as well, and that’s based on scientific research into what sorts of music makes us most relaxed.
Sturgess: What’s next? What have you got planned after this? Because this was a tremendous book as there was so much research in it...
Wiseman: Yes, it was a huge amount of work, particularly with the dream studies, so right now I get the joy of going out and promoting the book at various science festivals, and that’s always fun. That’s the kind of good part, after you’ve spent so long writing it, is you get to talk about it and do interviews like this!
Then in terms of what’s next on the agenda, I will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, actually, with two shows, one of them about the paranormal and another secret show!
After years of crossing paths with it, I finally met up with the Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima (Figures 1 and 2), which has been traveling the world to relate the “message” of the Lady of Fatima—that of world peace. At times, the statue “weeps,” with some believing that the purportedly miraculous tears “are related to the tragic legalization of abortion” (“Miracles” 2012).Figure 1. The Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima was available for “veneration” at a Catholic church in Amherst, New York. Figure 2. Close-up of statue shows its glass eyes that are frequently said to “weep” (photographs by Joe Nickell). Fatima Events
Fatima, Portugal, was the site where—in 1917—the Virgin Mary appeared to ten-year-old Lucia Santos and her two cousins. The only one to talk with the apparition, Lucia clearly exhibited the traits of a fantasy-prone personality. Her own mother would come to declare her “nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray.”
At the end of a six-month period of appearances, there occurred the famous “Miracle of the Sun,” proclaimed as such by the Catholic Church. Of thousands in attendance, some maintained that the sun spun pinwheel-like, while others claimed it danced or seemed to fall toward the spectators.
However, since people elsewhere in the world—viewing the selfsame sun—did not see the reputed gyrations, it is likely that the effects were optical ones caused by temporary retinal distortions (from staring at the intense light) or by darting the eyes to avoid fixed gazing. Meteorological phenomena and so-called “mass hysteria” may have also played a role. Sun miracles have since been reported elsewhere (Nickell 1993, 176–185; 2009).
In 1947, the statue was created, based on Lucia’s description of her apparition, and sent on its travels. A year after the attempt on his life in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, Pope John Paul II ordered that the bullet removed from the vehicle he had been riding in be set in the statue’s crown—in gratitude for his life being saved. The attempt was supposedly predicted by one of three “secrets” that had supposedly been delivered to Lucia by the apparition. The message told of a bishop in white being killed by soldiers in a hail of bullets and arrows that also killed other bishops and priests. In fact, the visionary “prediction” could only be associated with the pope by ignoring or rationalizing its many errors in that regard. (For example, in the attempted assassination no one was killed, there were no arrows, and so on.) (Nickell 2009)Weeping Statue
The statue has frequently been reported to weep, most notably in 1972 at New Orleans. As an archdiocesan spokesman stated at the time, “There are all sorts of possible causes. This is a very humid climate here.” The suggestion of condensation is underscored by the fact that the wooden statue has glass eyes. Hoaxing is another possibility, as evidenced by numerous cases of bogus “weeping” statues and icons, many of which I have investigated on site. (See, for example, my case study in Nickell 2011.) Imagination is another factor: according to the statue’s website, “Frequently, an individual sees the tears on the statue while others at the same time do not” (“Miracles” 2012).
When I saw the statue on its visit to St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Amherst, New York (September 16, 2012), it looked quite ordinary. However, claims that it sometimes miraculously weeps are ironic in light of the anti-idolatry teaching in Catholic bibles. They contain an extra, fourteenth chapter of Daniel, which tells about the worship of an idol that daily consumed food and wine placed before it. But Daniel said to King Cyrus: “Do not be deceived, O king; for this is but clay inside and brass outside, and it never ate or drank anything.” Daniel proposed a test. The food and wine would again be placed, but, before the temple door was sealed with Cyrus’s royal signet, Daniel secretly sprinkled ashes on the floor. The next morning footsteps were discovered in the ashes, leading to secret doors used by the priests and their wives and children (Daniel 14: 1–22, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition). It is unfortunate that this pointed lesson against idolatry is not recalled more often.References
“Miracles.” 2012. Online at www.pilgrimvirginstatue.com; accessed September 6, 2012.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2009. The real secrets of Fatima. Skeptical Inquirer 33:6 (November/December), 14–17.
———. 2011. The case of the miracle oil. Skeptical Inquirer 35:3 (May/June), 17–19.
The works published under the name Harun Yahya promote “Islamic creationism.” A closer look at their internal logic reveals that their appeal lies in their capacity to mimic science.
Creationism has gone global, and in the Muslim world, it is mainly associated with one pen name: Harun Yahya. Behind this pseudonym, which evokes the Prophets Aaron and John, is a whole enterprise whose public face is the Turkish writer, religious leader, and TV personality Adnan Oktar (born in 1956 in Ankara).1
Already in his twenties, while studying philosophy and interior architecture design, Oktar identified the idea of biological evolution with the utmost expression and root of contemporary antireligious materialism and came to the fore as an anti-Darwinist religious preacher. In 1986, he was charged with promoting a theocratic revolution and served nineteen months in jail. This was the first of a long series of legal troubles. Oktar, who eventually dropped his studies, managed to gather around himself a group of students from well-off families. Such a group gradually took on the form of a sect, whose activities and internal dynamics repeatedly came to the attention of Turkish authorities.
To date, Oktar’s biography includes episodes of hospitalization in a psychiatric institution, several imprisonments and indictments for possession of cocaine, sexual harassment, and blackmailing of collaborators. Oktar himself makes no secret or mystery about this. In interviews and presentations on his websites he is described as extraordinary and outstandingly devout while his troubles are described as either the result of the occult agencies he boldly fights against or as God’s tests that Oktar patiently endures.2
Harun Yahya’s productivity is likewise outstanding. Up to and including fall 2013, almost 300 books in Turkish have been published under his name, more than 200 of which have been translated into English. Yahya’s articles in Turkish listed on his official website number more than 2,000, and his English publications reach approximately 1,500. Translations are available in sixty languages, all widely advertised through more than 150 constantly updated websites. Oktar is unlikely to have written (or read) all of Yahya’s works. Their original nucleus is produced by a team whereas the translations are commissioned to, or more probably spontaneously carried out by, sympathizers the world over.3
Harun Yahya’s works are written in plain language, they are highly repetitive, and seem to mainly be composed using a bold copy-paste technique, with a system of quotations somewhat below any acceptable standard of scholarship. The books are indeed sprinkled with de-contextualized quotations from major scientists along with more controversial figures, no distinction being made between the respective intellectual profiles.
It is difficult to catch a glimpse of the real dimensions, sources, and reach of the enterprise. In 1990, Oktar founded the Scientific Research Foundation (SRF). The Foundation for Protection of National Values (FPNV) followed in 1995. The goal of the SRF, whose website boasts the organization of more than 2,600 scientific events in Turkey and abroad, is the “...establishment of a worldwide living environment that is dominated by peace, tranquility [sic] and love”; it is principally devoted to the defense of creationism. FPNV instead seems more focused on Turkish issues. However, their real extent and connections, besides official statements, can only be estimated. Yahya must have powerful foes and friends alike. Telling attributes in this regard are not only his immense output, intense marketing, and massive free distribution (which presuppose huge financial backing), but also the pressure that he was able to exert on several occasions on the Turkish government in order to block websites perceived as hostile, like Richard Dawkins’s official one in 2008.4Adnan Oktar with just a sampling of the works published under his pen name, Harun Yahya. Examples of its antievolution message are below. (AKAD AYTUNC/SIPA/Newscom)
Yahya has apparently discovered not only the secret for uninterrupted productivity but also a source of fabulous wealth. These royalties are not a result of his publications, though: all books indeed, besides being materially available in glossy, full-illustrated editions, can be downloaded for free in different formats from his websites. This extraordinary diffusion already renders extremely likely that any bookstore goer or Internet user interested in Islam and science bumps, sooner or later, into one of the texts associated with his name. However, in 2007 Yahya even preempted the curiosity of potential readers when he sent the gigantic and luxurious first tome of his Atlas of Creation (complete with 768 glossy pages and images in lenticular printing on the hard cover that create an illusion of motion), unsolicited and free of charge, to natural science teachers, research institutions, and libraries throughout Europe and North America. The second volume followed in 2013.5
Despite his dubious reputation in his home country, his extravagant TV appearances (some of which have become viral YouTube clips—especially those where he flirts with heavily made-up young women), and the shortcomings of his books from a scholarly point of view, Oktar/Yahya still enjoys worldwide respect by readers who are either unaware of his whimsicality or do not give any importance to it. In 2010, Yahya was selected among the top 500 most influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies center in Jordan.
According to Yahya, Darwinian evolutionist doctrines are the source and least common denominator of all the violent and repressive phenomena of the last century, such as terrorism and totalitarianisms (communism and fascism alike), all rejected on a par with racism, romanticism, capitalism, Buddhism, and Zionism (which after flirting with Holocaust denial in the 1990s he explicitly distinguishes from Judaism). He claims that they received constant support throughout the millennia by freemasonry, whose agency he describes as the principal occult actor of history in all its anti-religious manifestations. Yahya sees in Darwin the major advocate of evolutionism, however he claims as well that evolutionist doctrines date back even to ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Yahya rejects Darwinism following a double-track criticism: on the one hand he points out its moral consequences, whose disastrous effects he envisages in history. On the other hand he claims that Darwinism lacks scientific proof.
Despite the common polemical target, Yahya refuses to identify his position with that of the advocates of “intelligent design,” due to the fact that they do not make explicit reference to Allah; moreover, he thinks the very reference to a “design” limits the concept of divinity, but he agrees that Earth is millions of years old.
Against the evils that affect contemporary society, Yahya endorses an ecumenical and messianic form of Islam based on a return to religious values that have their symbols and examples in the Prophets. According to Yahya, the time of the coming of a last prophet or Mahdi is near; he will appear and begin his activity in Turkey, the country that Yahya considers endowed with moral superiority and therefore apt to take up the leading role in an Islamic union. It is to be remarked that, despite refusing to explicitly identify with the Mahdi, Yahya constantly describes him in a way that curiously fits his own profile.
Yahya constantly celebrates nature, which is lavishly illustrated in his books, and describes natural phenomena as “miracles.” In this sense, the whole universe is, as the title of one of his books recites, A Chain of Miracles. Yahya regards all the features and elements of the universe as clear proof of the existence of God. According to Yahya, everything in the universe is necessary, which means necessarily made for human life and, conversely, necessarily pointing toward the existence of God. Yahya usually describes these phenomena in plain language, further enriches the description with some schemes full of numerical data, and sprinkles the description with Qur’anic quotations and with passages from prominent scientists. The line of argumentation is always one and the same: If the phenomenon in question would not exist, life would not exist either—therefore God exists and he is good.
Especially over the past two years, Oktar seems to have further intensified his initiatives and diversified his contributions as an opinion-maker in public debates by engaging in different topics: he runs and appears on a television channel, specifically in a long chat show where he sits with men and women whose beauty he emphatically praises,6 discussing politics and world affairs; his website voices his statements about pan-Islamic unity, Turkish nationalism, and, more recently, building bridges with Israel. However, if we consider the ambition expressed by the initiative of sending out the tomes of the Atlas of Creation to institutions all over the world, and the general appeal of all such discussions to different audiences, it seems safe to assume that the most relevant aspect (that is, the one most likely to endure and to entice a global audience) of Yahya’s production is his creationism.
What are the reasons behind the appeal of Yahya’s creationism? They must be most probably identified in the stylistic features of his works. In such works, God’s existence (and hence faith) are taken as the object of a structured, “rational” argumentation within which proof is given and discussed. The books are written in a style that mimics scientific popularization with, for instance, quotations from scientists, usage of schemata and “data,” footnotes (albeit incomplete ones), and so forth. More important, the discussion targets the famous (and famously connected to science) doctrine of Darwinism as its antagonist; it is apparently discussed on a footing of equality with experts by criticizing it, offering “proof,” asking for counterproof, and so on. Yahya takes proof as the “facts” of the “natural world” that are presented as what natural sciences examine or are constituted of. Such “facts” fuse, and practically end up coinciding with, the graphic representation of facts that constitutes a “hyper-reality” in which the verbal discussion is inscribed. The pictures are doctored and assembled in order to enhance their visual appeal. The beauty with which they are then conceptually associated in the verbal part of the discourse becomes itself a “fact” that is used as “proof.”7
All these are common strategies in marketing. They are deployed whenever a shampoo is advertised referring to its “pH,” or the virtues of a toothpaste are exalted in an advertisement with an actor playing a dentist in a white coat, although both the shampoo and the toothpaste might well be advertised by referring to equally pleasant but less “scientific sounding” qualities such as scent and taste, respectively. Moreover they can often be detected in new religions, especially as a proselytizing, ice-breaking strategy. For instance, it is a common experience that Jehovah’s Witnesses, while approaching potential converts in person, do not initially describe the most controversial elements of their creed or the strict rules of conduct and the hierarchical structures that characterize their religious life, but rather propose a “biblical study” so that a religious message is presented with the credentials of a scholarly, objective discipline. There are even more poignant examples: the Raelians’ official website hosts a regularly updated page of scientific news, therefore proving to be “science friendly” and scientifically updated. In its proselytizing activities, both in person and on the net, Scientology (which evidently attempts to hijack science’s prestige from its very name) tries to gain prestige while antagonizing psychiatry—certainly not by stating right away the somewhat extravagant, sci-fi like doctrine that actually characterizes L. Ron Hubbard’s (1911–1986) church.
The construction of a visual hyper-reality is also another common marketing strategy: all the magazines devoted to scientific popularization the world over count on the visual appeal of the “facts” they represent to sell more copies. Furthermore, there are instances of a usage of pictures in a religious context analogous to Yahya’s one. Telling is the example of those illustrated booklets distributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses that constantly present enticing pictures of nature and the universe, either to argue in favor of the existence of a creator or to depict the afterlife—the delights of which are shown as a hyper-reality in which all visual and sensorial qualities of the present world are exalted.8
Yet, leafing through the pages of the Atlas, one is led to wonder: What is Islamic in this? Undoubtedly, Islamic elements influence some thematic and stylistic devices in Yahya’s overall production (usage of Qur’anic verses, reference to the Mahdi, specific narratives) and some modes of production concerning Yahya’s visual hyper-reality—for instance, a direct representation of God is not allowed. Yet the presence of Islamic elements has to be considered in the context of, and compared with, other elements of such a message. An inspection of the Atlas reveals that Islamic/Qur’anic references and narratives are diluted and rather marginal. As I see it, Islam ends up providing an extrinsic garb in which Yahya’s religious message about God and nature is wrapped. In other words, Islam does not constitute Yahya’s message’s inner logic. Instead we have the scientification of a religious message.
The scientific-sounding effect is obtained, as I pointed out, through stylistic devices and constant attacks on Darwinism. Yahya’s creationism boils down, indeed, to anti-Darwinism, whereas other forms of creationism are more focused on the supposed reasons why creationism is sound. Seemingly in Yahya’s works, attacking Darwinism yields one main result: it hijacks its prestige. Attack science and you will appear as serious as it is. What happens has a parallel in science fiction-movies. Whereas science-fiction movies are often praised (and marketed) as anticipating future scientific and technological developments, they are rather dependent on what most sounds scientific at the time of their release, and are therefore parasitic on scientific popularization. Hence, the plethoric insistence on cloning in sci-fi movies in the 1990s (whereas you hardly hear reference to genes and mutations, say, in the original series of Star Trek). To obtain the same effect, Yahya might well have decided (or may decide one day) to antagonize, say, black holes or light-speed; for instance, he might claim that they are an insult to God’s power, argue that they are not observable, vocally challenge Stephen Hawking in press as he did with Dawkins, and so forth. Of course there are specific historical and cultural reasons why Yahya specifically antagonizes Darwin. Yet what was conceived of as a defense of Islam has become a constant attack that overshadows the religious message itself, sounding scientific because it attacks science. The attack is the message.
Yahya’s appeal, despite his extravagance, should be taken as indicative of some cultural dynamics. Relevant in such dynamics is of course the way in which biological evolution is taught, perceived, and discussed.9 However, there is more to the picture than this. The fact that Yahya can find so many sympathizers points at some objective difficulties in understanding and popularizing not just biological evolution but, more generally, natural science. It is parasitic on what can be called, with Lewis Wolpert’s famous expression, “the unnatural nature of science,” the non-commonsensical (and therefore easily misunderstood or misrepresented) method and object of science;10 with science’s prestige all exploited in a media-savvy way. It might also be legitimately asked whether Yahya’s misunderstandings were, in the first place, personal and genuine, or if they are intentionally induced in the readership and cynically exploited to promote and nourish Yahya’s overall message.
However, it can also be asked whether such discourse is really harmful for the promotion and development of science in (Muslim) societies or whether it rather fills a natural gap by creating a reassuring message for a scientifically illiterate or semi-literate audience. Besides, it can be stated that attacking Yahya is also an important identity-marker for those religious authors who advocate a theistic reading of biological evolution.11 Taner Edis has pointed out that it is much easier to emphasize how crazy evolution sounds than explaining why it works.12 Analogously it is also much easier to emphasize how ludicrous Harun Yahya is than explaining how biological evolution can be reconciled with religious concepts. The existence of a Harun Yahya is, after all, useful for his declared adversaries.
The final result of this analysis sounds like a paradox. The Harun Yahya enterprise disseminates an utterly postmodern product, a scientified religious discourse that, similar to a TV format, can be exploited by any other religion and can be subscribed to by any anti-Darwinists (and conspiracists), independently of their specific religious affiliation. The individual Adnan Oktar has rearranged ready-made materials and set in motion a mechanism whose success does not really depend on him but on pre-existing and not exclusively Islamic cultural dynamics. Similarly, it is unaffected by Oktar’s troubles, and its appeal and impact go beyond the Yahya enterprise’s plans and ambitions. Islam ends up being marginal and it disappears beyond a form of technobabble and highly doctored pictures.
The French philosopher Voltaire famously challenged the traditional denomination “Holy Roman Empire”: it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, he wrote. Analogously, if we inspect “Harun Yahya’s Islamic creationism” with fresh eyes and investigate its deeper logic and wider context, we can conclude that it is neither Harun Yahya’s, nor Islamic, nor creationism.Notes
1. To date, the most complete scholarly investigation of the Yahya enterprise is Ross Solberg 2013. The definition of Oktar as the “public face” of the Yahya brand is to be found in Edis 2008. See also, Numbers 2006, 421–427 and Riexinger 2008.
2. See Harda 2009.
3. See http://harunyahya.com/.
4. See Randerson 2008 and Hameed 2009.
5. See Dean 2007.
6. See Krajeski 2013.
7. See Schneider 2009.
8. See Elliott 1999.
9. For an analysis of Darwin’s reception in the Muslim world, see Howard 2011.
10. See Wolpert 1992.
11. Criticism of Harun Yahya’s creationism is voiced for instance in Guessoum 2011 and Sardar 2011.
12. Edis 2002, 76.References
Dean, Cornelia. 2007. Islamic creationist and a book sent round the world. The New York Times (July 17). Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/science/17book.html?_r=1&ref=science&oref=slogin.
Edis, Taner. 2002. The Ghost in the Universe. God in Light of Modern Science. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
———. 2008. Harun Yahya’s legal troubles. 2008 Reports of the National Center for Science Education (RNCSE) 28:3 pp. 4–5. Available at http://ncse.com/rncse/28/3/harun-yahyas-legal-troubles.
Elliott, Joel. 1999. You can live forever on a paradise Earth. The visual rhetoric of Jehovah’s Witness iconography. Available at http://www.unc.edu/~elliott/icon.html.
Guessoum, Nidhal. 2011. Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.
Hameed, Salman. 2009. The evolution of Harun Yahya’s “Atlas of Creation.” Available at http://www.irtiqa-blog.com/2009/02/evolution-of-harun-yahyas-atlas-of.html.
Harda, Halil. 2009. Sex, flies and videotape: The secret lives of Harun Yahya. New Humanist 124(5). Available at http://newhumanist.org.uk/2131/sex-flies-and-videotape-the-secret-lives-of-harun-yahya.
Howard, Damian, A. 2011. Being Human in Islam. The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview. London and New York: Routledge.
Krajeski, Jenna. 2013. The Versace harem. Slate (May 2). Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/05/building_bridges_the_sexy_kittens_of_turkish_tv.single.html.
Numbers, Ronald L. 2006 (Second Edition). The Creationists. From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press.
Randerson, James. 2008. Creationist challenges Dawkins. The Guardian (August 19). Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2008/aug/19/richarddawkinsisusedto.
Riexinger, Martin. 2008. Propagating Islamic creationism on the Internet. Masaryk University Journal of Law and Technology 2(2). Available at http://www.digitalislam.eu/article.do?articleId=1980.
Ross Solberg, Anne. 2013. The Mahdi Wears Armani. An Analysis of the Harun Yahya Enterprise. Huddinge: Södertörns Högskola.
Sardar, Ziauddin. 2011. Reading the Qur’an. The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam. London: Hurst & Company.
Schneider, Nathan. 2009. Evolving Allah. Can one man succeed in stirring up the Muslim world against Darwin?. Search (March-April). Available at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/42950056/EVOLVING-ALLAH.
Wolpert, Lewis. 1992. The Unnatural Nature of Science. London: Faber & Faber.