Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
Called “America’s best-known poltergeist case,” Tennessee’s sensational “Bell Witch” affair of ca. 1817–1821 has gone unexplained, it is said, for two centuries (“The Bell Witch” 2006). Its most vocal proponent has called it “the greatest mystery and wonder that the world has any account of,” claiming it even surpasses the disturbances of the Epworth rectory poltergeist (Ingram 1894, 75–77, 315). (That was an early eighteenth-century case involving the Wesley family, among the children of which was the future founder of Methodism, John Wesley [Guiley 2000, 122–124].)
Dismissers and debunkers on the other hand (e.g., Hendrix 2006)—some of whom do not even list the story’s most essential text in their references—insist that most or all of the events never happened. What does an extensive investigation show?The Witch Appears Figure 1. Joe Nickell explores a “haunted” cave on the historic Bell Witch property in northern Tennessee. (Author’s photo by Vaughn Rees.)
The primary narrative of the Bell Witch is “Our Family Trouble,” reportedly compiled by Richard Williams Bell (1811–1857) in 1846. It tells how Bell’s father, John Bell (1750–1820), having settled his family on a farm in Robertson County, Tennessee (Figure 1), was plagued by what would today be called poltergeist phenomena, beginning in about 1817. The Bell account was later greatly supplemented by a Clarksville newspaperman, M.V. Ingram (1832–1909), in 1894.
Briefly, the events began with mysterious knocks at the door and other rapping sounds, and soon included sleeping children having their hair pulled and bedcovers thrown off. Indeed, “Some new performance was added nearly every night, and it troubled Elizabeth more than any one else” (Bell 1846, 106). Elizabeth, or “Betsy” (who was twelve when the antics began), was sent to stay with various neighbors, “but,” says Bell (110), “it made no difference, the trouble followed her with the same severity.” The apparent spirit began to answer questions, first by means of the rapping sounds; then it began to speak—first in whispers, then in a feeble voice. As the voice gained strength, those who suspected Betsy of trickery accused her of ventriloquism (much as in the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, in which such deception was effectively discovered [Nickell 2012a]).The Lost Treasure
Nevertheless, the Bell Witch went on to speak quite distinctly. As the story continues, after a skull and other bones were found to have been taken from an old grave nearby, the witch avowed herself the spirit of an early immigrant who had hidden his “treasure” for safekeeping. After certain pledges were made and urgency implored, “lest the secret should get out,” the location was specified as under a “great stone” near a spring at “the southwest corner” of the farm. Soon a group of men set to work at the site and eventually raised the stone. Finding no treasure, however, they continued digging until they had opened a hole about “six feet square and nearly as many feet deep.” Still they found nothing and were later mocked by the witch for being so easily fooled. Bell’s narrative continues through other adventures of the witch, including attacks on old John Bell himself. In one curious incident he had first one shoe jerked off, then, when it was replaced, the other flew off. The narrative culminates in his death—with suggestions that he was poisoned.Secrets Revealed
Now, this rather implausible, seemingly pointless account takes on real significance if it is seen as representing—with a knowing wink from those in on the meaning—important tenets of Freemasonry. Mystic Arthur Edward Waite in his authoritative A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry (1970, 1:366), defines Masonry as “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” (An allegory is an extended metaphor in which its components carry one or more meanings in addition to the seemingly literal one; a symbol is something that stands for something else.) Waite (1970, 1:367) stresses that in Masonic stories and rituals, “the significance is in the allegory which may lie behind it.”
Among its deepest spiritual concerns, Masonry focuses on the Mystery of Death, whereby “the Mason is taught how to die” (Waite 1970, 1:174), utilizing symbols such as the skull and the grave. Masonry’s Secret Vault symbolism pertains to the grave, buried treasure, and lost secrets—secrets that in the end remain lost (see Lester 1977, 181; Nickell 2001, 219–234). Much of Masonic symbolism is based on the stonemason’s trade, and the Rough Ashlar—a stone in its original form—symbolizes man’s natural state of ignorance (Mackey 1975, 320). Masonic rituals focus on the death of Hiram, master mason and architect of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:13, 40), whose allegorical grave measured 6'x6'x6'—the cube in Masonry being a symbol of truth. (Significantly, in Bell’s account of the treasure search, the cube is not quite completed .) In Masonry, Hiram’s name is Hiram Abif, whose legend—including his murder—represents “the dogma of the immortality of the soul” (Mackey 1975, 339).
The Bell Witch treasure tale seems rife with Masonic symbolism. The location of the treasure at “the southwest corner” of the farm corresponds to “the South-West corner” of the Masonic Lodge. This is one of the four stations that the “hoodwinked” (blindfolded) initiate is ritualistically conducted to in the second, or Fellow Craft degree (in a search for light), being opposite to the starting and ending point (Lester 1977, 91). Near the end of “Our Family Troubles,” the most peculiar incident in which old John Bell has first one then the other of his shoes pulled off, presumably by the witch (176), surely invokes the Masonic Rite of Discalceation—from the Latin discalceare, to pluck off one’s shoes. One does this when approaching a consecrated place (Mackey 1975, 125–129; Lester 1977, 40–41). In the Bell narrative, the pledges the men make and their agreement to maintain secrecy evoke the Masonic society’s penchant for secrecy. So does the section “The Mysterious Hand Shaking” (in which people purport to shake hands with the witch), suggesting the Masons’ secret handshake (Morgan 1827, 105–110). At one point “Bell” (107) speaks of receiving “a sudden jerk, which raised me,” indicating the Masonic ceremony of being raised (to Master Mason status) in which, at one point, the candidate is “suddenly jerked backward” (Lester 1977, 163). And so on. References in the Bell narrative to “signs” (170), knocks at the door (104), “mauls” (159), and many more, also have their counterparts in the secret symbols, rituals, and language of Freemasonry (Lester 1977, 22, 47, 143).Questioned Authorship
I find the parallels (e.g., the size and cubical shape of the vault) to be too many and too specific for coincidence. Moreover, there are additional apparent Masonic allusions in the portions of the story later penned by Ingram, into which Bell’s “Our Family Trouble” is sandwiched. Ingram was a longstanding Freemason who was buried in 1909 “under Masonic auspices” (“Obituary” 1909). Indeed, the evidence indicates Ingram actually wrote the narrative attributed to Bell!
The alleged Bell manuscript has no proven existence before about 1891, and, so far as we know, is today nowhere available to be examined as to its paper, ink, and handwriting. It appears to exist only as a text—and that written by Ingram.
First of all, the “Bell” narrative—which was purportedly expanded from a “diary” as well as supplemented “from memory” in 1846, but pretends to describe events decades earlier—contains apparent anachronisms. For example, it seems written in the context of modern spiritualism—which did not flourish until the decades after 1848 when the Fox Sisters sparked new interest in supposed spirit communication (Nickell 2001, 194).
Also the frequent references to private detectives—as in “a professional detective” and “the detective business” (Bell 1846, 143, 144)—are anachronistic for 1817–1821 given that the word detective did not originate until about 1840 and then in England as an adjective, and the earliest known use of the noun in America appears to be 1853. About that time Allan Pinkerton created the country’s first agency of private detectives (Nickell 2013). Of course these indications are highly suggestive that the “Bell” narrative is of much later vintage, consistent with authorship by Ingram.Ingram as ‘Bell’
Moreover, “Bell” and Ingram often use the same distinctive expressions—both, for example, referring to the events as “high carnivals” (Bell 1846, 132; Ingram 1894, 34). “Bell” refers to the occurrences as representing “the greatest of all secrets” and “the great mystery” (1846, 130–131, 185), and Ingram calls it “this greatest of all mysteries” and “the greatest mystery and wonder that the world has any account of” (1894, 6, 315). Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize old John Bell in the same words—the “Bell” text saying he “was always forehanded, paid as he went” (1846, 102), and Ingram writing, “He paid as he went. . . . He was always forehanded” (1894, 37). It could be argued that Ingram was simply influenced by Bell, but Ingram uses “forehanded” elsewhere (1894, 62), and there are many more stylistic similarities, as we shall see.
Both “Bell” and Ingram use multi-page paragraphs (e.g., Bell 1846, 104–112; Ingram 1894, 38–43). Also, both texts contain sentences of over a hundred words (Bell 1846, 143–144; Ingram 1894, 206). Although Bell was a farmer, the text attributed to him is rife with learned words (like personation, declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity [Bell 1846, 122, 126, 127]), just like writer Ingram’s (e.g., lodgement, unregenerated, indomitable, mordacity, and alacrity [Ingram 1894, 10, 4, 35, 189, 213]).
The “Bell” text frequently promotes the Bible and Christianity (1846, e.g., 121–123, 126, 173, 178), as does Ingram’s writing (1894, 19, 33–34, 36, 43, 86–87). Both use literary allusions, with “Bell” (1846, 171) citing evil spirits driven “out of the man into the swine” (See Mark: 5–13), and Ingram (1894, 67) referring to a spirit “from the vasty deep” (an allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I [III. i. 52]). “Bell,” in wondering at length, regarding old John Bell, “if there was any hidden or unknown cause why he should have thus suffered” (1846, 173), evokes the Book of Job (e.g., Job 10:2–18), and Ingram’s imperative to “observe the warning on the wall, whether it be written by the hand of the spectre, or indicted by the finger of conscience” (1894, 101), clearly alludes to Belshazzar’s feast and the famous story of the handwriting on the wall (Daniel 5). And there are additional literary elements.
Applying to samples of both texts a standard “readability formula” (based on the average length of independent clauses together with the number of words of three or more syllables [Bovée and Thill 1989, 126]) shows that “Bell” and Ingram had comparable reading levels. These were respectively 14.3 and 14.4, indicating the number of years’ education required to read the passage easily—and presumably to write it. The levels, which are close, are high, placing each at the sophomore level of college. This is not surprising for writer Ingram, but for rural farmer Bell it would seem unlikely (although Ingram says he was “cultured” [1894, 43]), adding to the inference that Ingram could have written “Bell.”
Some shared writing features are also consistent with single authorship of both texts. For instance both occasionally use myself for I (Bell 1846, 149, 150; Ingram 1894, 14), and that for who (Bell 1846, 117; Ingram 1894, 82). Also, both are sometimes guilty of comma-splicing (Bell 1846, 139, 145; Ingram 1894, 193, 196), and incorrect use of the question mark (Bell 1846, 126; Ingram 1894, 32) as well as the semicolon (Bell 1846, 144, 171; Ingram 1894, 37, 187). And both sometimes commit subject-verb agreement errors (Bell 1846, 156; Ingram 1894, 189, 190).
Given all of these similarities between the texts, in addition to the other evidence, I have little hesitation in concluding that Ingram was the author of “Bell.”Folklore vs. Fakelore
This does not mean that the entire Bell Witch story is bogus, but it does warn that its central source may be largely fiction. Unfortunately, some other sources given by Ingram are also doubtful. For example, he claims that The Saturday Evening Post published a lengthy account of the case “about 1849” (Ingram 1894, 218), but an online search by CFI Director of Libraries Tim Binga failed to turn up any such article in 1849 (issues for which are complete) or indeed the 1840–1860 period (although there are some missing issues). A colorful account of General Andrew Jackson having paid a visit to the Bell farm at the time of the alleged incidents, told by a Tennessee lawyer (Ingram 1894, 229–238), lacks support from any known historical source. (Jackson was a prominent Freemason [“Masonic” 2013].)
Although some have claimed the story to be at once a “legend” (folklore) and a work of complete “fiction” (fakelore) by Ingram (a contradiction in terms1), the basic story does actually predate Ingram’s 1894 book by several years. Its outlines are given in Goodspeed’s History of Tennessee (1886):
A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station about 1804. So great was the excitement that people came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals. The freaks it performed were wonderful and seemingly designed to annoy the family. It would take the sugar from the bowls, spill the milk, take the quilts from beds, slap and pinch the children, and then laugh at the discomfiture of its victims. At first it was supposed to be a good spirit, but its subsequent acts, together with the curses with which it supplemented its remarks, proved the contrary. . . .
In two chapters of his book titled “Recollections and Testimonials,” Ingram presents the statements of numerous “Citizens Whose Statements Authenticate the History of the Bell Witch.” Unfortunately, many of those attesting—including forty-three signers from Cedar Hill—are only stating that several men mentioned by Ingram were early settlers and “trustworthy”; their collective statement makes no mention of the Bell Witch claims (1894, 292–293).
However, several other persons, writing in 1891–1894—including Charles W. Tyler, Mahala Darden, Rev. James G. Byrns, Nancy Ayers, Joshua W. Featherston, R.H. Pickering, John A. Gunn, Zopher Smith, James I. Holman, W.H. Gardner, and A.E. Gardner—all claim to have heard stories about the Bell Witch directly from reliable persons since deceased (Ingram 1894, 251–308). At least one, John A. Gunn, makes clear that he has recently seen the alleged Richard Williams Bell manuscript, “Our Family Trouble,” and that he had heard his father, both grandfathers, and others relate incidents that confirm the general accuracy of the manuscript. (This rather suggests that newspaperman Ingram sent advance printed copies to persons from whom he was soliciting testimonials, and thus no doubt influenced their memories.) It does seem unlikely that Ingram would have fabricated the testimonials of so many persons still living, or that they would have knowingly endorsed a deception.Conclusions
If, therefore, as some evidence indicates, there were indeed some poltergeist-like incidents at the Bell farm—beginning about 1817 and mostly ending soon after the death of Betsy’s father, John Bell, in 1820—it is still difficult to say exactly what occurred and therefore how to explain the events.2
Fortunately, skeptics do not have the burden to disprove that for which there is uncertain evidence. As best we can tell from the secondhand accounts of those still alive when Ingram composed his fictionalized, allegorical text in 1894, the events centered around Betsy Bell. Indeed, Ingram (1894, 247) admits that many of Betsy’s contemporaries suspected her at the time, “charging her with the authorship of the mystery.” This is also stated by others who provided alleged information to him, including Lucinda E. Rawls and Mahala Darden (Ingram 1894, 238–240, 261).
As with other “poltergeist” cases, the Bell Witch story sounds suspiciously like an example of “the poltergeist-faking syndrome” in which someone, typically a child, causes the mischief (Nickell 2012b, 331). As the term suggests, while science has never confirmed a single poltergeist, again and again cases occur in which such phenomena are faked by the disturbed or immature. nAcknowledgments
CFI Librarian Lisa Nolan helped considerably with this research, as did CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga.Notes
1. A legend is “a traditional tale believed to have a historical basis” (Axelrod and Oster 2000, 303).
2. For a critical analysis of the case at face value, see Fodor 1951.References
Axelrod, Alan, and Harry Oster. 2000. The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore. New York: Penguin Reference.
Bell, Richard Williams. 1846? “Our Family Trouble”: The Story of the Bell Witch as Detailed by Richard Williams Bell. Alleged authorship and date; given in Ingram 1894, 101–186.
The Bell Witch. 2006. Online at http://paranormal.about.com/od/trueghoststories/a/aa041706.htm; accessed May 9, 2006.
Bovée, Courtland L., and John V. Thill. 1989. Business Communication Today, 2nd ed. New York: Random House.
Fodor, Nandor. 1951. The Bell Witch, in Hereward Carrington and Nandor Fodor, Haunted People, New York: Dutton, 142–72.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 2nd ed. New York: Checkmark Books.
Hendrix, Grady. 2006. Little Ghost on the Prairie, Slate Magazine, May 4. Online at http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2006/05/Little_ghost_on_the_prairie.html.
Ingram, M.V. 1894. Authenticated History of the Bell Witch and Other Stories of the World’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon. Reprinted, Adams, Tennessee: Historic Bell Witch Cave, Inc., 2005.
Lester, Ralph P. 1977. Look to the East! A Ritual of the First Three Degrees of Masonry. Chicago: Ezra A. Cook Publications.
Mackey, Albert G. 1975. The Symbolism of Freemasonry. Chicago: Charles T. Posner Co.
Masonic Presidents Tour. 2013. Online at http://www.pagrandlodge.org/mlam/presidents/jackson.html; accessed Oct. 21, 2013.
Morgan, Capt. William. 1827. Illustrations of Masonry; reprinted Chicago: Ezra A. Cook Publications, n.d.
Nickell, Joe. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
———. 2012a. Enfield Poltergeist. Skeptical Inquirer 36:4 (July/August), 12–14.
———. 2012b. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. “Detective: Uncovering the Mysteries of a Word.” Skeptical Inquirer 37:6 (November/December), 14–17.
Obituary of M.V. Ingram. 1909. Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, October 5; reproduced at http://bellwitch02.tripod.com/martin_van_buren_ingram.htm; accessed October 31, 2012.
Waite, Arthur Edward. 1970. A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, in two vols. New York: Weathervane Books.
When Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison recently, a lot of people scratched their heads. Sure, he had peddled and promoted a lot of nonsense in his day, from celebrating “natural cures” like homeopathy and “energetic rebalancing,” to recommending that his readers stop taking their prescription medicines. He had even tacitly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children: “Vaccines are some of the most toxic things you can put in your body,” he said.  But this is America, where we don’t just send people to jail for saying things in books and on infomercials … do we?
But it wasn’t selling snake oil that put Kevin in the slammer. In fact, it wasn’t even the “natural cures” books for which he became so famous. It was his relatively forgotten book, The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.
In his infomercials, Trudeau had called his weight loss plan “easy” and said that those who followed the plan could “eat whatever they want.” A judge found that he had “…misrepresented the contents of his book [and] … misled thousands of consumers.” The courts were especially sick of him because they had dealt with him a number of times and had previously barred him from making outrageous claims about products in infomercials (at the time, he was selling a calcium product and saying it cured cancer). Trudeau had carved out an exemption for his books, only to exploit it. He was charged $37 million in refunds to his readers, which he refused to pay, saying he was flat broke. The court knew he wasn’t because he kept buying things like $180 haircuts. This time, when he went back to court, the judge threw the book at him.
When I stopped by Trudeau’s Ojai, California, home to visit his estate sale for Skeptical Inquirer, I found about thirty copies of that very book in his den. I went home with one copy for $3. I wanted to see what fantastic weight loss secret was so good that Trudeau was willing to risk his livelihood. And here’s what I found out.It’s Not “Easy” Unless You’re a Masochist
“The most common myth is that to lose weight, and keep it off, you must eat less and exercise more.” —Kevin Trudeau
Trudeau’s weight loss plan is long, grueling, and so confusing it might as well be a Dante poem. You, the dieter, will be doing the treatment for approximately ninety-six days, then following a maintenance routine. The plan itself is divided into four stages. But even these stages are not clear: part four contains elements of the diet plan itself as well as the maintenance program; at times he contradicts himself by saying you should have only one massage a week, then later saying that you should get three; at one point, he says you must always eat six meals a day, then later he recommends six meals a day “plus breakfast.” Not only is the diet not simple but the reading isn’t either. A graphing calculator may be recommended.
During the thirty-day preparatory phase, you will be drinking one gallon of water a day infused with coral calcium, eating only organic food, swallowing various kinds of oils, sunbathing naked for twenty minutes a day, going to bed at 10 pm sharp and rising at 6 am, getting fifteen colonic irrigation treatments, drinking several types of tea daily, taking filtered showers, doing a liver cleanse, doing a heavy metal chelation cleanse, doing a yeast cleanse, taking nine separate supplements, sprinkling hot peppers and cinnamon all over your food, avoiding trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, MSG, nitrites, farm raised fish, microwaves, carbonated drinks, fast food, ice cold drinks, lotions or creams, “electromagnetic chaos” (such as cell phones and TVs), air conditioning, fluorescent lights, and all drugs, including prescription medicine. And that’s just the beginning.
And although Trudeau claims his program is neither a diet nor exercise program, you will be lifting weights daily and spending one hour a day walking and twenty minutes a day on a rebounder. Simple, right? Phase one is a breeze.
The forty-five-day second phase is when the real treatment begins. You, the dieter, begin using the secret ingredient: taking injections of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), a hormone that women produce while pregnant and excrete in their urine. If injecting yourself with a part of pregnant women’s pee isn’t “natural,” I don’t know what is. You will also be eating only 500 calories a day, for all forty-five days. Lest you think that that is what might make you lose weight, Kevin assures you that that’s not so. If you only restrict your calories but don’t take the injections, he says, you will still retain fat in all your trouble spots; the hCG makes all your weight loss even out, making you trim and perfect, a veritable Cameron Diaz. “Reduced calorie dieting is not only ineffective, but causes more physical problems,” says Trudeau, seemingly ignoring that his diet is, in fact, restrictive.
In addition to the injections and all the not-eating, you will be doing most of the items from phase one, in case you missed all that tea. Worried that you’ll be hungry if you eat a quarter of your required calories for a month and a half? Don’t be. Kevin says that “Hunger pangs will last no more than five to seven days.”
Phase three, which lasts twenty-one days, is much like phase two, except you ditch the injections and you get to eat “as much food and any type of food you choose”! That is, except for any sweetener, any starch (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, you name it), fast food, trans fats, nitrites, or cold drinks. No big whoop.
Finally, you reach phase four, the final phase in your diet plan. For all your hard work, you are rewarded with a ton of procedures and cleanses, clearing out virtually every organ of your body with “liver cleanses,” “colon cleanses,” and the like. You will be getting intravenous chelation therapy, completing Scientology’s full body fat cleanse program (more on Scientology later), and avoiding GMOs, any food that’s not organic, and any “name brand food.” In fact, you’ll be going through a whole list of rules that will basically govern your every moment from when you get up to when you go to bed at night. And how long does phase 4 last?
The rest of your life.
Bizarrely, Trudeau still claims that the diet is not restrictive: “The whole concept that you have to count calories, eat certain foods and eliminate others, [and] count fat or carbohydrate grams is completely unnatural and unnecessary,” he says.
Good news, though: Kevin Trudeau recommends drinking alcohol every night, which seems to be the only way to get through his lifestyle.It Costs Over $18,000 to Complete Trudeau’s Diet Program Once
Besides it taking ninety-six grueling days to complete phases one through three, the basic treatment costs over $18,000. That’s over a third of the average household income in the United States, or 195 trips to Disneyland.
But of course, Kevin doesn’t tell you how much everything costs; he simply recommends the products and lets you find them yourself. And what on Earth can you spend $18,000 on in a little over three months? Here’s a sample:30 gallons of Volvic spring water $773.25 Various brand name supplements $1,017 24 colonics sessions $1,800 At-home colon cleanses$210 Instrument (which you must learn to play) $70 for a cheap ukelele Spectrum brand Vitamin E $240 Eleotin tea $450 Leonard Caldwell stress reducing CD $50 Rebounder exercise device $100 Breathe 2000 Deep breathing courses $1,750 Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard $16 18 Thai massages $630 Daily infrared sauna sessions $1,215 eWater Shower filter $170 Jack LaLanne juicer $150 Q-Link pendant to block electromagnetic energy $100 Scientology full body fat cleanse $5,200 hCG injections $900
On top of recommending over one hundred products to use during treatment, Trudeau requires that all adherents eat “100% organic food,” for the rest of their lives, adding untold amounts of additional cost.
My final estimate for the treatment comes to $18,525.64, plus the cost of food. Oh, and maybe a plane ticket to Europe, but more on that later.It Costs $1,679 a Month to Do the Maintenance Plan
Maintenance on Trudeau’s program seems nearly impossible to fit into one’s schedule, with all the supplements, food products, and avoiding every modern convenience since the invention of shoes. On top of that, he requires a nearly spiritual devotion to his own philosophies:
“Deprogram yourself from all the posthypnotic suggestions and subliminal messages that are stuck in your brain... Ideally, you should read immediately upon arising at least one page from one of the recommended books [including Trudeau’s own works], and read at least one page just before retiring.”
But if time didn’t prohibit you from maintaining the program, cost will. It will run you a whopping $1,679 a month (plus the cost of organic food) to follow Trudeau’s program, and it will last for the rest of your life. That’s almost double the average monthly rent in the United States. Here are just a few things you’ll be buying until you’re dead:100% organic food $Forever dollars 5 colonic treatments $375 / month 1 gallon of Volvic spring water a day $309.30 / month Infrared sauna treatments $200 / month Various brand name supplements $280 / month Yoga classes $100 / month Liver cleanses $40 / month Shower filters every few months $107 a piece
And so on.
You might wonder what Kevin’s incentive for promoting these incredibly costly name-brand products is. According to him, “I have no financial interests in anything recommended in this book … I am not compensated in any way, directly or indirectly, by any company, or for any product mentioned in this book.” Presumably this does not count his own books and paywalled website, which he mentions a total of twenty-three times.You Might Have to Fly to Germany
So you’re going to try Kevin’s diet, but you don’t know any pregnant ladies who will give you their pee. What do you do? Well, Kevin insists that you use injectable hCG, and that can be tough to get. It’s officially approved by the FDA as a fertility treatment but not approved for weight loss, though some doctors and clinics will prescribe it off-label. But what if your doctor won’t prescribe it to you?
Kevin has the answer in his FAQs.
“Question: My doctor says this won’t work and is not safe.
Answer: Find another doctor.”
Trudeau suggests leaving the country.
“I, myself, went to Germany, got a prescription, and received enough hCG injections to do the entire six-week protocol. I then legally returned to the United States with the prescription and the hCG, and finished the protocol in America. It is my understanding that this is a legal option.”
Very reassuring.You May Get Caught up in Scientology
Trudeau repeatedly encourages his readers to take Scientology courses or to get Scientology treatments or Dianetics counseling (Dianetics is a therapy program and school of thought promoted by Scientologists). We are told to “Use Dianetics for psychosomatic and emotional ills,” urged to cleanse toxins out of our fatty tissues using Scientology’s pricy Purification Program, and encouraged to read five Scientology books listed as “recommended reading.”
Trudeau’s devotion to the mysterious Hollywood religion runs deep. In 2010, former employees released memos Trudeau had sent to his staff, rambling about office policies including keeping one’s desk spotless and drinking more juice. He also suggested that all employees take Scientology or Dianetics courses and offered to reimburse 50 percent of the cost of any Scientology event. Side question: how much is half your soul worth?You Might Get Sick
According to the FDA, the biggest risk of hCG-centric diets is the severely restricted calorie intake, which may cause gallstone formation, electrolyte imbalance, and heart arrhythmias. But the agency has also received reports of pulmonary embolism, depression, heart attack, and death after using the injections.
But the toll of Trudeau’s plan may be even higher. After all, he encourages all of his readers to stop taking any and all medications, from aspirin to HIV medication and insulin:
“…non-prescription and prescription drugs are the number one cause of illness and disease,” he says.
And “every time you take even the smallest amount of even the most common medications you are causing severe damage to the human body.”
And when it comes to choosing a new doctor, he says:
“Get personal individualized care from a licensed healthcare practitioner who does not use drugs or surgery.”
In other words, one who doesn’t practice medicine.You Probably Won’t Lose Weight in the Long Term
The Weight Loss Cure turns out to be a lot like my high school boyfriend: a lot of promise, and not much to deliver. Trudeau claims you can expect fantastic results:
“I lost six pounds the very first day,” he says, of doing the program himself.
Or, perhaps sensing he’d gone overboard, he scaled it back:
“You lose approximately one pound per day.”
Then he pulls back again, saying that during the thirty-day preparatory phase,
“people should lose between five and thirty pounds.”
And what’s the truth? According to the FDA, hCG has been underwhelming in studies. Any weight loss people experience is likely because of the severe calorie restriction itself, rather than the injections. And like any highly restrictive weight loss plan, the pounds will probably pack back on (and then some) when you return to eating your usual diet. But Trudeau claims that because the hCG is burning up stored fat, the user doesn’t feel hungry at all and can sustain the program longer. Of other diet programs, Trudeau says,
“The problem is during the diet, exercise, or weight loss program you are usually hungry, grumpy, fatigued, have food cravings, need to use super human willpower, and feel deprived and miserable.”
His diet, he holds, is just the opposite. I asked a former hGC user named Amanda how the injections faired against Trudeau’s statements.
“This was not my experience at all,” she said. “It was miserable … The hCG diet required more super human willpower than any other diet I had ever tried (and believe me, I’ve tried them all). I was on the diet less than a week before I stopped.”
Nicole, another woman I spoke to, tried hCG drops and a restricted calorie diet for three weeks. When I asked how the diet worked out for her, she was more blunt.
“It was horseshit,” she said.
Trudeau might argue that if you aren’t following his protocol exactly, with all the right foods and products in place, you aren’t doing it right:
“It is true that hCG should never be used to treat obesity alone. It must only be used as part of the [my] protocol,” he states.
Yet that exact protocol is nearly impossible to follow, and when researchers have tried, the results came out the same: hCG was no better than restricting alone. When I asked Amanda if she would recommend hCG to a friend who wanted to lose weight, she replied,
“No. Absolutely not. I see why people fall for it though … I was desperate for a miracle and wanted to believe.”You Can’t Trust this Guy
In the end, it seems that the book is not a viable weight loss program unless you eat it, stopping up your gastroinestinal tract and making it impossible for you to eat anything else for a week.
And as for Trudeau’s claims, can you really trust a guy who says things like this?
“Arby’s makes a sandwich with something it calls roast beef. It is not roast beef at all. They actually had to payoff [sic] politicians to rewrite the laws which allowed them to call their artificial man-made product ‘roast beef.’”
Trudeau summed up his confidence in the weight loss “cure” this way:
“If the contents of this book were ever put on trial … any judge or jury would come back with a verdict exclaiming that without a doubt all the concepts, methods and protocols outlined in this book are accurate, sage and effective!”
I guess I’m just not that judge or jury.
 Trudeau, Kevin. Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2004. Trade paperback, p. 131.
 Federal Trade Commission list of Trudeau complaints and case proceedings, 2003-2012. http://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/cases-proceedings/032-3064/trudeau-kevin-et-al
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 17.
 According to Trudeau, microwaves cause depression and weight gain.
Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 83.
 At one point, Kevin tells the story of a man who couldn’t lose weight until he stopped using his medicated ointment on his glass eye. He claims that the fats in creams seep into our skin, making us retain body fat.
Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 137.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 40.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 97.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 99.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 99-101.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 37.
 Average household income in 2012 was $51,017, according to the U.S. Census. http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb13-165.html
 “The most significant components of food that play the largest role in weight gain and obesity are food additives, chemicals, and food processing techniques!” he says, “It’s not the food itself; it’s not really the calories, the amount of fat ... It’s how the food is processed and the man-made chemicals and additives in the food that actually cause weight gain and obesity.”
Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 5
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 167.
 U.S. median rent in 2013 was $871 according to the U.S. census. https://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-07.pdf
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 209.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 121.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 116-117.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 215.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 111
 The five books are Dianetics, The Basic Dianetics Picture Book, Scientology Picture Book, Clear Body Clear Mind, and Purification: An Illustrated Answer to Drugs. Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 239-240.
 “I have ... done virtually every type of health or personal development therapy or theory you can imagine,” he said, “I happen to think for myself, personally, that Scientology auditing, as well as the courses that they offer, have been the most quantifiable in terms of the benefits that I received.”
“Sh*t My CEO Says: Infomercial outlaw’s bizarre business priorities detailed.” The Smoking Gun, 2010. http://www.thesmokinggun.com/file/kevin-trudeau-memos
 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Questions and Answers on HCG Products for Weight Loss,” retrieved March 2014. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/MedicationHealthFraud/ucm281834.htm
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 63.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 91.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 214.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 6.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 6.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 74.
 United States Food and Drug Administration, “Questions and Answers on HCG Products for Weight Loss,” retrieved March 2014. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/MedicationHealthFraud/ucm281834.htm
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 3.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 120.
 The effect of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) in the treatment of obesity by means of the Simeons therapy: a critera-based meta-analysis. British Pharmacological Sociaty, 1995. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1365103/
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 158.
 Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. Hardback. p. 177.
This classic Point of Inquiry interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson has now been transcribed and is available to read. If you'd rather listen to the interview, you can do so here. Transcription provided by Rev.com.
Announcer: This is Point of Inquiry from Monday, February 28th, 2011.
Chris: Welcome to Point on Inquiry. I'm Chris Mooney. Point of Inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. This week's guest needs no introduction. He is Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of our most famous public communicators of science. Dr. Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and the host of PBS's NOVA ScienceNow, which just completed a new season. He is also the author of nine books, including the New York Times best-selling Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, and most recently The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet. Neil deGrasse Tyson, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Neil: Thanks for having me back, I think it’s my fifth time or something. Don’t you have enough of me, do you think?
Chris: No, I'm not sure that we have. It's an honor to have you again. You just completed a new season of PBS's NOVA ScienceNow centered around the six big questions, some of them were, how does the brain work, how smart are animals? I guess I want to ask you first, what did you learn in the process of doing this series that may have surprised you, struck you?
Neil: You asked a great question because of course professionally I'm an astrophysicist, but if I host a show on general science, I'm exposed to fields that there would be no other occasion for me to know about. I would say among my favorite subjects were the one way to try to grow human organs in a hospital in Boston. That was just creepy, freaky, amazing and astonishing where you take an organ from a pig, for example, if the pig is large enough, the organs are about the same size of what you find in humans. Then you dissolve away, take your heart for example, you dissolve away all of the pig's cells that are attached to the scaffolding that's the structure of the heart itself. Then you have this sort of this collagen ghost like structure that had contained all of the pig's cells that made it a heart. Then you grow, you culture your own cells onto that architecture, and then you implant that organ into your own body, and your body doesn't reject it, it thinks it's is its own, it's the right size. It pumps the way it's supposed to. It could be liver, it could be lungs. The idea of it that you would just grow your own organs for some later emergency, for me was the best, the future right there, and forget this plastic inserts and all these other non-organic helpers that can be installed in our body. That one I think left me in a new place.
I'd say another segment that was particularly intriguing to me was the one that has just aired, but of course you can see it online, all these segments are available on the NOVA ScienceNow website. It's in the answer to, what's the next big thing. We selected the efforts to modernize the electrical grid in America. Normally when people think of big things, they think of a single big thing and they look at it and touch it. Whereas the electrical grid is more subtle than that of course, and it's so much if we take for granted. You just walk in your home and flick on a switch and all the lights turn on, where the electricity come from, how did it get there, was it efficient, how did they know how much to send? We have an electrical grid that's 70, 80 years old, and it's time to modernize it and make it work with the efficiencies that we know and expect for any kind of modern use of electricity. To watch what the grid had been doing and what it will be doing, that was new for me as well.
Chris: These are both great topics. The first is under the heading of "Can we live forever?" The second would be about modernizing electricity. On the second, I'm actually interested there has been a recent story in the New York Times about how people are actually resisting smart grids because they're afraid that it's going to do something strange to their brains.
Neil: Yeah. This is part of … It's not the first time people would fear a new technology. It's unfortunate. What do you do? Do you say, no, it's not going to affect your brain or you just educate them properly in the first place? And my tact as a scientist and as an educator, from my earliest days has been to really try to get people to understand the causes and effects of things and the operations of nature at its most basic level, so that when they're confronted with a fear factor, it's really ignorance. The consequence of ignorance is, you make decisions that you think are informed, but in fact are not. Whereas, if you're trained and understand then whatever subsequent decisions you make are based or anchored in a physical reality, and that's the kind of state of mind we need the electorate to be in.
Chris: You also did … One of them was about how the brain works? How does the brain work? You point out that it works in part by deluding us, even by deluding us with cognitive and precognitive biases. The crazy thing is you could argue that this is sort of functional because that's how we got here.
Neil: Yes. That's an interesting point, because I think science exists in part. in large measure, because the data taking faculties of the human body are faulty. What science does as an enterprise is provide ways to get data, acquire data from the natural world that don't have to filter through your senses. This ensures or at least minimizes as far as possible, the capacity of your brain to fool itself. To the neuroscientist, the brain is this amazing organ. To the physical scientist, it's like, "Get it out of here. Leave it at home. Just bring your box, and have the box make the measurements." That's an interesting duality. You have a brain, you can survive. My favorite among these is how easily the brain recognizes patterns even when there are no patterns there. You can statistically show there are no patterns, but your brain creates patterns.
The long-term explanation for that has always been it's better to think that's a tiger in the bushes and then run away from it and have it not be a tiger, then for it to be a tiger, and not know it's there and then you get eaten. The people who did not see patterns in the history of the species got eaten by creatures that were in fact making patterns in the visual din of the forest.
Chris: The birth of science is of course the attempt to override this. Francis Bacon talked about the Idols of the mind, and that's essentially what we're now understanding through neuroscience, but it suggests something about human nature where scientific thinking is always going to be kind of the kid who gets left out of the group.
Neil: Yeah. Science, if it were natural to think scientifically then, science as we currently practice it would have been going on for thousands of years, but it hasn't. It's relatively late in the activities of culture. Science as we now practice it and that would be hypothesis and experiment, the careful taking of data. This is relatively modern. That's been going on for no more than about 400 years. You look at how long civilizations have been around. You say well, there is a disconnect there. Clearly, it's not natural to think this way. Otherwise we'd have been doing it from the beginning.
Meanwhile mathematics is the language of the universe, fascinatingly so, and yet science and math tend to be the two subjects that you'll commonly hear people complain about in their time in school. I'm remaining perennially intrigued by that fact that the operations of the universe can be understood through your fluency in math and science, and it's math and science that get people to greatest challenges in the school system. That's an interesting disconnect. It calls for a greater attention to science education and science funding. All the things that will help us bridge that gap between the failures of the human mind to interpret reality and the methods and tools that enable it.
Chris: Well, that's a good way to shift, there are some points about public policy that I know you have spoken about. We are in a pretty perilous situation these days when it comes to federal funding of science pretty much across the board. I know you have advocated the idea that you have to fund all strands of research, because you don't know where any one of them is going to lead. Could you explain why that's the case, and how would you apply it to the science budget situation that we're looking at?
Neil: Yeah. Thanks for following up on that because there are some various YouTube clips with me. The funny thing about YouTube, because I don't post any of it, what happens is people, they bring in their camcorder or whatever and they film the whole lecture and then they take out the best parts. My best stuff is on YouTube, and if you missed out all the boring part that they didn't put up or the rest of it that flushes out the argument. This is a great occasion for me to make that clear. The urge is for people to say, "Why are we funding that when we should be funding this? Why are we going into space when we haven't cured cancer yet? Let's put money to cure cancer, and so let's fund this cancer research. Let's fund this research on AIDS or this other disease." The urge is to guide scientific efforts towards the direct solutions to problems that involve society.
That urge is fully understandable, right? I'm not faulting anybody for feeling that way. But I will fault people for believing that that's the only way you'd get those solutions or that is even the best way to get those solutions. Again, I'm not faulting you for feeling that way. If you actually analyze the history of discovery and how those discoveries have influenced society, those are not the best ways to arrive at those solutions, which is not. What you end up doing is you create band aids to the problems. You get a temporary solution. It makes it feel a little better. But the profound solutions to the greatest ailments that have ever befallen society have hardly ever come from a direct application of intellectual effort to that problem. Period.
The sooner people recognize this, the better. I can give my favorite examples here, if you walk through a hospital, any large busy hospital and look at every machine with an on/off switch brought into the service of diagnosing the condition of the human body. It's based on a principle of physics discovered by a physicist, who had no interest in medicine. Period. Rather medicine was not what drove the discovery that led to the creation of that medical device. One of the best examples here is the MRI, the Magnetic Resonance Imager, here it is imaging the soft tissue of your body without having to cut you open. Awesome. Where did that come from? That comes from the physical principle of nuclear magnetic resonance. Well, you can't use the nuclear word, the N word in a hospital because it will scare people. They took out the N. It's not NMRI, it's M as in MRI in the hospital. It's principles of nuclear magnetic resonance, which was discovered by a physicist who happened to be my physics professor in college by the way, discovered by a physicist interested in the behavior of nuclei and atoms in the galaxy, in the galaxy. He discovers that nuclei will respond to a magnetic field, a strong magnetic field if you pass across it, and different mass nuclei will respond differently, so that if you pass a magnetic field across this mixture of atoms and then send light across it, particular kinds of radio waves, the light will bend and be affected by those different nuclei in different ways. If you're clever about it, you can create an imager that will show one level kind of soft tissue versus another.
That's what became this medical imaging device that diagnose people's conditions and saved people's live, how do you put a value on that? You can't. Lives are being saved daily from this application of the efforts of a physicist. When Wilhelm Roentgen was exploring high-energy radiation and discovers X-rays, all right? His goal was not to create a new medical device. Its application was obvious at the time. People put hand in front the rays and the other side you sees his bones. Imagine the first time you ever see that. It's like "Wow, this thing is seeing through me." Its medical application was obvious at the time. That's now what drove him, he was a physicist. When Einstein wrote down the first equations that would later enable a laser, Einstein is not saying, "Barcodes, yeah, that's what this will do?" He is not saying this. I can go on and on and on, but you only have a 30 minute show. My point is, if you want deep solutions to problems, you feel all frontiers and then you find ways to cross pollinate those frontiers. That's where the great solutions come from.
Chris: Well, I know, it seems like President Obama agrees with you. He has been talking a lot lately about competitiveness and science. You have written it in America, I'm quoting you. “Contrary to our self-image, we are no longer leaders, but simply players. We moved backwards by just standing still.” How do you encourage the kind of situation in which those giant leaps forward are going to be more likely to happen?
Neil: Yes. I think its two prongs … its three prongs. One of those prongs people think should be bigger than I think it should be. People say, "Well, we need better science teachers," and that will solve the problem. No, better science teachers makes a scientifically literate public. That's a good thing. Yes, you want a scientifically literate electorate. That's what a good science teacher will do for you. That doesn't make scientists. What makes scientists are people who … yes, a flame is lit within them from a teacher for sure. At the end of the day, they have got to land somewhere at the end of their educational pipeline. There has to be interesting science for them to do to continue to attract their interest beyond the semester where they had the great science teacher.
When you think of the 1960s, we were going to the moon. The moon created a … the Apollo program created a zeitgeist in the country where science was seen as a way to take us into the future. Once that attitude descends on a culture, it affects everything. It affects what you want to be when you grow up. It affects how government monies are spent. It affects how people treat the field of science, are you hostile to it or are you receptive to it? It affects the entire attitude. I see NASA in itself a force of nature, a way to shape a nation's vision of itself. Because of the visibility of the agency, a single dollar spent there pays huge dividends in terms of people's awareness of what science can achieve.
The three prongs are, yes, you need to do the teachers, but that's necessary, but insufficient. Then, you want to fund agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health. These are agencies that fund pure, curiosity-driven science, especially the National Science Foundation. Fine, but kids have never heard of these agencies. They are not … there is no eight grader who says, "When I grow up, I want to be an NIH researcher." You don't find that typically. Now, you need a visible force that can seduce an entire generations of people into fields that will ultimately reshape the future. Like I said, I see NASA as practically unique force in that realm. I said there are three prongs, the teachers, the actual agencies that fund curiosity-driven research, and then the vision statement. The vision statement comes from saying we're going to Mars, we're going to land on an asteroid, we're going to understand the nature of the universe, all three of these together I think is the one, two, three punch that can take us out of our doldrums and put us back in the leadership role that so many of us took for granted in the 20th century.
Chris: Well, that does seem like a very good recipe for zeitgeist as you put it before, although I guess some would argue, this is the thought that I was prompted to have, while you were speaking some would argue that there is a fourth ingredient that we don't have and that's the problem. That is that we were really afraid of the Soviet Union back then.
Neil: Yes. What we do is … Yes, so we went to the moon because of war. War, that's correct. You have to ask … there was the cold war zeitgeist. That was the landscape on which the rest of the zeitgeist unfolded, no doubt about it. You don't want war to be why you do science, but of course it is one of the greatest drivers of scientific innovation ever. We shouldn't sweep that fact under the rug. It's just a reality of being human in this world. You don't want that to be the driver, because that's … you want something more noble. There are plenty of noble ways to do this. Among them is how about simply national security.
For example, suppose there is some bioterrorism. Do you call the marines? No. What good are they? You want the best people who could have been biologist, to be biologist at your arms reach. The only way you do that is … Well, the best way I know how is in the school system you have really interesting biology frontiers to attract the next generation into. Who do you turn to again? NASA? Oh, we are looking for life in the sub … ice oceans of Jupiter's moon, Europa, who is going to help us find life. I'm going to get the very best students in that class to join that bandwagon. I'll have the best biologist, the best chemist, the best geologist, the best aerospace engineers, because they're going to be designing an airfoil to fly the rarified atmosphere of Mars rather than me saying, "Who wants to be aerospace engineer?" then, “design a airplane that's 10 percent more fuel efficient than your last generation's fleet of planes.” One will get them, the other will not at that age. I'm convinced of this.
So, it maybe that the future of security as well as cyber security is going to rely on having the best possible students to become the best possible scientists in each of these fields. They'll come when called. They came when the Manhattan Project was to build the bomb. The physicist were there fully employed in the laboratories and nearly all of them came when asked. It may be that security in the future is all about how many scientists you have in your silo and not how many bombs are there.
Chris: Another thing that came out of this incredible period of zeitgeist follows Sputnik and space race and then subsequent missions by NASA was one great science communicator Carl Sagan, who popularized all of this through the 70s and 80s. It has been said in many ways you are his descendent, I think that's true. I'd have to ask though, what do you think he would say about our state of scientific awareness, literacy engagement in this sort of decade, two decades plus?
Neil: Okay, a couple of things. Thanks for that reference there. I'd say … I'd word it a little differently. I'd say not that I'm his descendant. I'd say that first he was essentially unique in what he created as a science, as an enterprise where exposing the public to the joys and the beauties and the frontiers of science. At the time it was unique. There were very few TV channels. Everybody watched Johnny Carson at night. The singularity of his impact on that enterprise will never be equaled. Again, that's first.
Second, he carved open an entire swath through the brush and the bramble of what is required to bring science to the public. Yes, I'm in a his footsteps, so are dozens of other people, there is Brian Cox over in England, there is Michio Kaku, there is Phil Plait. Many of these people you surely have had on your show. He created room enough for many of us. That's a really good and important fact that I think is not widely enough recognized. In his day, you could channel surf for weeks, and maybe you will find Marlin Perkins, the Mutual Omaha animal show or Jacque Cousteau perhaps, but that was it. There is no other science programming on television, not in the 60s and 70s maybe NOVA, the PBS NOVA had just been born in the early 70, that's it.
Today, you can channel surf anytime of day, and you can channel surf long enough, you're going to hit a science program. There are entire networks given unto science, I can only celebrate the level of access that people have to learning about science in modern times. What would Carl Sagan say? I don't know for sure. I think he would celebrate all these venues for receiving science. I think he'd have been disappointed by the level of science resentment that exists among some politicians, among some elements of our culture. It's the kind of anti-science attitude that prevail, or some of it is a fear of science, some of it is they don't like science because it conflicts with their philosophies. I think he will be disturbed by that, but would simultaneously celebrate how much access people had on an unprecedented level.
Chris: Well, I think that definitely if you're interested in science and you want to go find it, there is so many places as you said to do it and we should celebrate that proliferation on all these flowers blooming. At the same time this blessing is a bit of a curse because if you aren't interested, you don't ever have to see it?
Neil: Yes, I guess so. That would have been true at any time. The real variable here is that those who want to learn science in a previous era would have to go months or years before their first encounter or their next encounter, whereas today they go hours. Yeah, the issue is not the people who would have never lifted a finger then or now, it's those who wanted to lift a finger and didn't have a way to do it. I think that's where we really need to celebrate. By the way, if I were to follow-up on your point about the blessing and the curse, if I were to think about the curse aspect of this. It's given that there are so many outlets for people to convey information. It has multiplied the outlets of misinformation as well.
A person can … Here is an interesting fact about a Google search of any web search engine of course. If you believe something is true and you type it in, you'll find the websites that agree with your belief whether or not the belief is actually true. You can reaffirm your thoughts simply by finding some document somewhere have also says what you think, and so that the error checking has been compromised. With the … How many billion web pages there or how many blogs there are? We have to be a little more vigilant about our capacity to edit what we see and to filter what we see judging what is the ravings of a mad man or crazy people, and whether the … and what content is secured in its foundation?
Chris: Absolutely. I think that's what I was getting at, because you can have blogs that explains science really well and you can have blogs that attack science and the latter might be very popular. In fact, I wrote in my book Unscientific America that the winner of the 2008 best blog award was the blog that attacks the science of global warming, that's science blog award because it was popular. That's the problem with the information environment I guess. It's a different one for scientist to communicate in the one in which Sagan existed. We're training all sorts of scientists to communicate now, that's a major new trend.
Neil: That's a new trend. It's training without the stigma that once existed for a scientist reaching out to the public. I think that there is blood on the tracks from Carl Sagan having done that first. I'm fortunate that he was in the field of my choice where I can do it now, and we have that legacy where- not that my activities accrue to my professional standing, they don't subtract from it. That's an important step forward compared to what was once the case.
Chris: What advice would you give to a young scientist today who wants to reach out to the broader public not really sure how to do so?
Neil: Yes. It's not a predetermined path that you can say, yes, here is what I will do and here is how … look at for example, Phil Plait. Phil Plait is the professional astrophysicist and then he had a blog and the blog became a book. Then the book, lot of interest in the book, and then he saw the need to … for skepticism to be addressed in society and then he became a big part of that movement. You don't prescript that, it's hard to prescript it. You don't … my career path, you just don't prescript it. You do what you do best and what you like the most, and you figure out along the way how that best fits into the opportunities of culture and a greater society. In graduate school I wrote a question and answer column for StarDate magazine out of the University of Texas. That became a book. Then we have the book and TV shows want your views on things. One thing leads to another, but in all cases the common denominator is that it starts out by writing.
My advice to someone who wanted to be a science communicator is, you write. Writing is the excuse you can give yourself to organize ideas in coherent sentences in ways that make sense not only word to word, but sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. That is the art of communication being clear and succinct. The proving ground for that is writing today. Blog, if you got a popular blog, you can gain some weight in that way. Then, in an earlier day I would have said you write Op-Ed, and letters to the editor. Well, it gets your name out there with your point of view that others might not have, but regardless it’s writing. Initially you're not paid for the writing. You are just writing because you cannot write or because the urge is so strong you just have to. Then eventually people take notice. If you say interesting things and you say them well or humorously or perceptively. Then others take notice of it, and then one thing leads to another. You can't prescript it, you just have to do what feels right and express what inspires you. Then watch where the chips fall at that point.
Chris: That is really a great advice. I have watched Phil Plait's meteoric rise and glad that we did have him on the show. He is one of our most popular guests and he is a very good one.
Neil: He even had a TV show. Here I am, I got my TV, I'm hosting a TV show on NOVA. What a luxury to live in a time where that's not even the only scientist hosting a TV show. Right? You can count … just count them. Just go on down the list. He didn't start out, when he is writing his PhD he wasn’t saying to himself “When I am going to host a TV show?” He might have thought about it, but that's not what's driving him. That's not what's … so I am charmed by the entire enterprise. There is some headway. I'll give a quick example here. What got a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks, if you are in the right circles, was Bill O'Riley commenting that nobody can explain how the tides come in and out and why the sun rises and sets. It was sort of a back handed reference to the power of God, and the inability of humans to understand all of gods creation.
Stephen Colbert decided to poke fun at this, and invited me to do a quick little skit with him where he plays back the clip of O'Riley saying that no one understands how the tides could come in. Colbert says, "So, no one understands, only God understands,” and then I knock on the door. I come in, I say, “I understand how tides come in." It was a cute little skit, but what's interesting is it might have been a day in the not too recent past where Bill O'Riley's comment would not … that it would have gone uncontested, whereas his comments are now being contested by an active, energized resistance movement if you will. There is a movement of scientifically literate people in the population themselves not necessarily scientists who are no longer standing for this level of profound ignorance among people in power. If you have a talk show and you have the $10 m paycheck you are in power as is true with Bill O'Riley. The fact that these are … the tolerance for that level of ignorance is dropping. That resistance goes on and continues. I think that's a consequence of the widespread access that people have to sources of rational thinking, and I only see that continuing.
Chris: I think that's probably true, you do see that, and the fact that The Colbert Report had you on so many times and many other people who talk about science as itself an indicator of the way this rises to the top of the culture although …
Neil: Yes, exactly. I have been on Colbert eight times. Well, that's a big number. I think is the most of any one guest. Two interesting points, it's interesting that I, his most invited guest, I'm a scientist, point one, and it’s not a science show. Point two; I'm not the only scientist. Every week there are scientists on the show. It's not like I am even unusual in the fact that I'm on his show as a scientist. These are all indicators that I think need to be celebrated. It gives me hope for the future of the country in ways that I don't think I had that level of hope even just a few years ago.
Chris: You have also, and it relates to your prior comments about Bill O'Riley, you certainly had a lot to say about this topic of science and religion, and I guess you could say your "Religion" is kind of that of Einstein, no God necessarily but plenty of … awe in wonder at the universe.
Neil: Well, actually it's not that I have had plenty to say about science and religion. In fact that subject occupies no more than about one percent of my writings, and an even smaller percent of my public talks. What happens is these things get clipped and put on Youtube and they get reposted. If you do a search on my writings what people seem to have reacted to the most are these comments and thoughts on science and religion. They don't drive my interest in public discourse. In fact I have been invited to appear on to debate religious people on panels, I am just not interested. It's not part of my public platform to argue about religion and God or with the existence of God. I just don't have the interest in that. We have plenty of other people who do, who forge their modern careers on it, so go find them. I’d rather get people sort of thinking straight in the first place and getting them to celebrate the beauty of the universe and the laws of physics.
Chris: Yes. I didn't mean to mischaracterize that. I too have seen the famous Youtube clip, which is pretty spectacular when you think of that, you and Richard Dawkins at beyond belief. It's spectacular because it's you and Richard Dawkins first of all, but it's spectacular because you represent two views on the complex debated relationship between science communication education on the one hand and criticizing religion on the other. Even if you don't want to, you end up having to be pulled into it a little.
Neil: Yes, exactly. People and the association is there, and I am widely claimed by the atheist movement when in fact I don't … it's just not a part of my public persona. Quite funny, I don't know who created my wikipage, but in there a few years ago it said Neil deGrasse Tyson is an atheist who is an astrophysicist, and I said, "What, that's not really." I put in there Neil Tyson is agnostic. Then three days later it was back to atheist. It is an urge to claim me in that community. I have to put it, word it in a way that would survive an edit. I said, "Widely claimed by atheists, Tyson is actually an agnostic," and so that managed to stick. I haven’t checked it lately, but that's how I left it off. The point is if you look at the … there are people who … there are philosophers who want to debate me about my saying that I'm agnostic rather than atheist. Atheist, so we want to claim it, it's the same thing.
You could read definitions of words, but at the end of the day it's how people behave, who associate themselves with those words that define what the word is. If you look at the conduct of atheist in modern times, that conduct does not represent my conduct. Pure and simple, I just don't behave that way. I don't cross off the word "God" in every dollar bill that comes to my possession, in the “In God We Trust” part. I just don't do that. There’s got to be some other word for people like me. Agnostic seems to fulfill that role. The encounter that I had with Richard Dawkins, which I think is if it's the one you are referencing, it's the most watched YouTube clip I have ever been in. It was first time I ever met him – “There’s Richard Dawkins, I have read all of his books.” The guy is brilliant, and he is Oxford trained which means he speaks well, speaks perfectly in ways that Americans can only envy.
There he was, it wasn't just his written word, his spoken word was so sharp and so brilliantly barbed that it was like "Wow." If I were not as educated as I am, I would be completely turned off by the power of his capacity to communicate and leave me thinking that I am stupid. That's what led to my comments. That I thought that he did not give enough attention to thinking about what's going on in the mind of who is listening to him. Because he is not then persuading anybody, he is turning them into enemies, sworn enemies. He is so good at what he does; he is making enemies out of people rather than friends. That's what led to my rebuke of his methods and tactics in that two minute clip we are commenting on his ways. That was a Beyond Belief conference. I gave two other whole presentations at that conference. One is semiautobiographical, and another one is on intelligent design, which is on all the news at the time, because the Dover, Pennsylvania case with intelligent design in the classroom, in the public school classroom had … I don't remember if it had been resolved by then or will be certainly in the news. I just wanted to give to all these people saying, intelligent design is a separation of church and state. I just try to put a reality check on that.
Intelligent design has been around for millennia. Ptolemy in the notes on his … Ptolemy is one of the great proponents of the geocentric universe, a brilliant mathematician, an Alexandrian mathematician. He wrote in the margin of his greatest tome, "When I trace at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies," he is referring to the planets going forward and then retrograding and then going back again. "When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself, and take my fill of ambrosia." That's a quote from one of the greatest scientist of his day, Claudius Ptolemy. It is essentially intelligent design. He doesn't really understand why the planets are doing this. He thinks he has some angle on it with every cycle and like.
At the end of the day he says Zeus is Zeus, I'm basking in Zeus's handy work. We look at that poetically. We are not saying, "Get it out of the school; stop it." Look at the history of this and its there. You can't or shouldn't ignore it. The issue here is not that people think and feel that way. The issue is that it is not science. Period. Therefore it does not belong in that science classroom. Put in history class, put it in religious philosophy class or the history of philosophy class, but it never leads to discovery. That was the only point I was making. I wasn't debating the existence of God. I was simply saying it is not science. It doesn't lead to discoveries. That's the kind of way I’ve been engaged. Even that has very heavy viewership. I'd say it's one percent of my public commentary, but it's 25 percent of all the views that people have of me on Youtube clips. They think I am all about the religion-science conversation, but I am not.
Chris: Well, I am glad we gave you the chance to clarify and explain that. I think one reason also that that thing got so many views is that Richard Dawkins then responds with a marvelous joke that we cannot utter on the air that people can Google … it being quite an exchange.
Neil: These are not just for your listeners, it's very Googlable. By the way one other thing, a point that I don't think is addressed on this whole religiousity-God thing. There is the modern atheist describing or leaving one to feel that if you are religious that you are somehow steep in ignorance of the operations of the world in ways that these enlightened atheists are not that they are aligned and you are not. Fine, however, there is the little matter of that 40 percent or 35 percent, a third of western scientists claim a personal God to whom they pray. What does it mean to attack the public for their religious ways when members of your own community numbering albeit less than what you find in the public, but still not zero, nowhere near zero. Third is very not zero, all right?
A third of your brethren, it seems to me, that should be their first target, and until that number becomes zero, they really have no, I don't see how they can justify beating the public over their head saying, they are stupid because they're religious, when a third of the scientists among their professional rank feel exactly that same way about their religious conviction. Why don't you start with the scientist and have a conversation with them first? They don't. I think the public becomes an easy target because they are not as educated as they are. I think it's pedagogically unfair to launch the movement in that way.
Chris: Well, it also suggests the relationship between science, religion and literacy is not completely linear.
Neil: Exactly. It's correlated, yes. The higher education level, the less likely it is that you will be religious, that's well known. The more elite you are in the scientific world, the less likely you are to be religious. These correlations are there. They don't go through the zero point, right? There is still left over folks who are highly educated, highly elite, yet still believe in a personal God. I think that's fascinating, and maybe that should be the subject of study. How is it that it could be so resistant even under the action of those forces that would otherwise remove it in others?
Chris: Well, I only have two more questions for you. One other controversial subject, Pluto, you are in some ways …
Neil: And you mention Pluto in your book. Don't pretend like you didn't because I'm here on the phone with you now. Is it on like page one or something of the book?
Chris: Exactly. You're one of the early demoters. Now, we learn that Eris, if I'm pronouncing like the rock out there whose discovery most closely triggered Pluto's changed status may not be as big as Pluto after all. Does Pluto get a do over?
Neil: Yeah. If you only imagine that Pluto not being the biggest object out there, if you thought that that was the reason why Pluto was reclassified, then it's natural for you to think that oh, Pluto has regained the largest object status in the Kuiper Belt, this region is where you find all these icy bodies including Pluto. Then you'd think, yes, let's reopen the conversation. The conversation was never based on whether or not Pluto was the largest or the second largest object. It was never based on that. Its false reasoning to suggest that Eris once thought to be bigger than Pluto is now smaller and therefore Pluto is a planet. Note that the definition adopted by the international astronomical union does not rely or depend on Pluto being the biggest, the second biggest or the third biggest. It depends on, is Pluto round? Yes, okay. Put a check in that box. Has Pluto cleared its orbit gravitationally? No, it hasn't. The mass of everything else in the Kuiper Belt vastly exceeds the mass of Pluto.
Pluto is in a swarm out there, so that box doesn't get a check. The classification goes from planet to dwarf planet. There is another object such as that, there is the largest asteroid. It's Ceres, and named for the Greek Goddess of harvest. The word cereal comes from that name. Ceres is large enough to be round, gravity makes you round if you have enough mass. Small objects, like the moons of Mars, look like potatoes, Idaho potatoes. They are too small for their gravity to override the structural integrity of the rocks themselves. Above a certain size everything is essentially round. Ceres is round, but hasn't cleared its orbit. It's orbiting with countless thousands of other bodies in the asteroid belt, the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt. The round objects in those zones are dwarf planets. Who cares if Eris is bigger or smaller. In that way, Mike Brown in his book How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, he overstates the importance of Eris, of his discovery of Eris being bigger than Pluto as a driver for demoting Pluto. It helped to … people accept the inevitable demotion, but it's not that ,… there was a conversation in progress for decades actually well before the discovery of Eris. That's why I'm not losing sleep over Eris.
Chris: Fair enough. Well, let me just ask you one concluding thought Dr. Tyson. You are probably our most prominent science communicator or at least one of them … if anyone knows what works and what doesn't it is probably you. Let me just ask you this final question, is it working? Are we getting through?
Neil: If I admit that science communication is not working then what do I make of my modern life as a communicator? Let's say, I've just failed. Actually I think I am fully capable of admitting failure if in fact that's what I see happens. However, for me the signs are all good. If you look at how many twitter followers Brian Cox has in England, and how popular he is. I am told he is more popular in England than Carl Sagan ever was here in America. You look at the fact that it fluctuates, but at any given moment half of the top ten grossing movies of all time are based on science themed subjects. The biggest grossing movie of all time is Pandora, and its astrobiology, that's what that … would drive that, space exploration and astrobiology. These are all good signs. It means people are thinking about it. It means it's there. It means it's within arms reach. I'm on a landscape populated by multiple other science educators.
By the way there has always been science educator journalists, yourself among them, that's been a constant over all this time from McPhee who has been … who wrote about geology. You have Dava Sobel who writes about the history of science. You have Timothy Ferriss. We have people who write about science. Another one, Michael Benson; these are people who are fundamentally journalists, but have a deep interest in science and have written books. There are many science editors who have books to their credit in an effort to bring science to the public. That has been a constant, I think. I have always been charmed by that fact. You add to that, the fact that you now have half a dozen to a dozen scientists who are visible, who are active who are themselves writing books for the general public and being interviewed on television bringing the frontier of their trade to the masses.
I think that can only be a good thing. Yes, it's slow, but it's steady. I think it's real, and I think it's irreversible. If you remember Obama's inauguration speech, he mentioned science in the speech. I tried to look back at previous presidential speeches and I don't … the word science is not common in the inaugural speeches. Kennedy referenced it, but it just not … so the fact that it's there gives me further hope that it will become part of the country's agenda. There are two reasons to do it. One, because it's great to learn about how the universe works. I'm not so naïve as to think that that's going to drive congress. Well, do you know what drives congress? They don't want to die poor. The sooner people realize that innovations in science, engineering and technology and math are the engines of tomorrow's economies the sooner we will take action to remedy this problem. Administratively it's not just in terms of the pop culture venues that television and twitter streams represent.
We recognize this because we are fading as the rest of the world moves forward. They are investing in their science and engineering and technologies. America, I think, tends to respond to military threats and economic threats with efficiency and with resolve more so than it responds to anybody's urge to want to explore. If it's … because we fear our economic strength will evaporate, I'll take it as a reason for studying science. Meanwhile, I'm doing it because I think it's the greatest enterprise humans have ever embarked upon.
Chris: Well, Dr. Tyson, I want to thank you for a wide ranging episode and a very inspiring closing thought. It has been great to have you on Point on Inquiry.
Neil: Well, thanks for this. I think it's the first time you have interviewed me, and so welcome to that post. I think it's a great way for you to spread the love.
Chris: Thank you again.
Neil: All right.
Chris: I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. To get involved in the discussion about Neil deGrasse Tyson's views and works, please visit our online forums by going to centerforinquiry.net/forums and then clicking on Point of Inquiry. The views expressed on Point of Inquiry aren't necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today's show can be sent to feedback at pointofinquiry.org.
Point of Inquiry is produced by Adam Isaak in Amherst, New York and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalen. Today's show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I'm your host, Chris Mooney.
For a variety of reasons scientists are generally advised not to debate creationists, thus the certain trepidation when our colleague, the well-known television science educator and CSI Fellow Bill Nye, accepted an invitation for just such a debate about origins with creationist Ken Ham. The debate took place February 4, 2014, at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and was streamed live worldwide. Afterward the Skeptical Inquirer invited Bill Nye to give his own first-person view of this much-watched and much-discussed debate, the circumstances surrounding it, his preparations and strategy, and the reasons he decided to take part.
This whole thing started when a crew from BigThink.com asked me about creationism. I was in New York to promote Internet-based science education. While on camera, I remarked that if you, as an adult, want to hold on to a completely unreasonable explanation of the Earth’s natural history that is useless from a practical standpoint, that’s your business. But we don’t want our kids, our science students, to be indoctrinated into that weird worldview, because our kids are the scientists and engineers of the future. They need to be the innovators that drive the U.S. economy in the coming decades. These were offhand, albeit heartfelt, remarks, nominally off the topic I sat down to talk about. As of this writing, the excerpted video with my observations about creationism has logged over 6.3 million views.
Among the viewers apparently was one Ken Ham, who is the head of a congregation in Kentucky that holds doggedly to the idea that the world is somehow merely 6,000 years old. Furthermore, he has raised millions and millions of dollars for what he calls the “Creation Museum,” a facility across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, in Petersburg, Kentucky. He wrote to me and challenged me to a debate. For several months, I put the offer or proposal aside thinking the whole thing would blow over. After all, his challenge was based on a minute and a half of video that exists with little context. He was persistent. So, as the weeks went by and we corresponded, I acceded the challenge. More specifically, I was willing to come to his facility if the topic was: “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?” Note that this title does not include the word “evolution,” nor does it connote or imply that we would discuss evolution specifically.
As you may know, once in a while I am invited to offer my thoughts on Fox News. And I love it—I love being in the studio right there with those reporters with the opportunity to look them in the eyes (or lens). As you may infer, I’m not much for their style, and I usually disagree with just about everything a Fox commentator has to say, but I relish the confrontation. I had that same feeling about Ken Ham’s building. I wanted to be in the belly of the beast. I drove by there when I was on other business in Cincinnati a few years ago. The building was closed, but driving around the grounds I saw numerous depictions of ancient dinosaurs. One infamous sculpture featured humans of apparent European descent astride a triceratops-style ancient animal adorned with Christmas lights. I wanted to see the inside someday.
I do about a dozen college appearances every year. It’s a privilege that I enjoy immensely. At first, I figured this appearance and this encounter would get about the same amount of notice as a nice college gig. There’d be a buzz on Twitter and Facebook, but the world would go on spinning without much notice on the outside. Not here: the creationists promoted it like crazy, and soon it seemed like everyone I met was talking about it.
I slowly realized that this was a high-pressure situation. Many of you, by that I mean many of my skeptic and humanist colleagues, expressed deep concern and anger that I would be so foolish as to accept a debate with a creationist, as this would promote him and them more than it would promote me and us. As I often say and sincerely believe, “You may be right.” But, I held strongly to the view that it was an opportunity to expose the well-intending Ken Ham and the support he receives from his followers as being bad for Kentucky, bad for science education, bad for the U.S., and thereby bad for humankind—I do not feel I’m exaggerating when I express it this strongly.
I believe I am generally not the stereotypical male who refuses to ask for directions. I feel locals usually know the way best. By analogy, to find my way through this debate (which was quickly becoming a big damn deal), I consulted the world’s foremost authorities on arguing or debating with creationists. I flew to Oakland, California, and consulted with the famed, venerable, and formidable Genie Scott, along with Josh Roseneau, and the staff at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). They schooled me on what to do in great detail. Later that week, I managed to arrange a lunch with Don Prothero and Michael Shermer, two hardcore skeptics. Don even debated the notorious Duane Gish back in the 1980s. All of these people were wonderfully helpful. They were very patient with me and helped me figure out what to say and, especially, what not to say. They said to prefer the word “explanation” to the word “theory,” for example. I just can’t thank them enough.
With that said, and everyone profusely thanked, I was going to be on my own in this thing, and I had to make my arguments come from my heart (a metaphor for my point of view—from my brain).
I am by no means an expert on most of this. Unlike my beloved uncle, I am not a geologist. Unlike my academic colleague and acquaintance Richard Dawkins, I am not an evolutionary biologist. Unlike my old professor Carl Sagan or my fellow Planetary Society Board member and dear friend Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am not an expert on astrophysics. I am, however, a science educator. In this situation, our skeptical arguments are not the stuff of PhDs. It’s elementary science and common sense. That’s what I planned to rely on. That’s what gave me confidence.
With my experience as a science educator, I like to divide elementary science into three categories: life science (biology), physical science (physics and chemistry), and planetary science (geology and astronomy). And so with the remarkable help of the NCSE and skeptics, I chose arguments from each of these three disciplines.
On the slides in my “decks,” as they’re called, I do not use many words. My colleagues sent me dozens of PowerPoint slides for my use. Thank you of course, but my goodness you all, when I watch many of your presentations, it’s like reading a page of book projected on a wall. How can someone in the audience focus on what you’re saying, when there’s a blizzard of words in front of her or him?
Those of you familiar with creationism and its followers are familiar with the remarkable Duane Gish (no longer living—at least as far as we know). His debating technique came to be known as the “Gish Gallop.” He was infamous for jumping from one topic to another, introducing one spurious or specious fact or line of reasoning after another. A scientist debating Gish often got bogged down in details and, by all accounts, came across looking like the loser.
It quickly occurred to me that I could do the same thing. If you make the time to watch the debate (let’s say for free at http://billnye.com—wink, wink), I hope you’ll pick up on this idea. I did my best to slam Ken Ham with a great many scientific and common sense arguments. I believed he wouldn’t have the time or the focus to address many of them.
The night before the debate, I spoke at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The students there were keenly aware of the next evening’s debate. I had a long car drive from one side of the commonwealth to the other. I could not help but notice the layers and layers of beautiful limestone everywhere along the road. We pulled over at a cut where some blasting took place for the road’s right-of-way, and I walked through a few centimeters of snow. I easily picked up three nice specimens of rock revealing several fossilized small shelly ancient sea creatures. I held one up during my opening remarks. There’s an irony that the Creation Museum literally sits atop overwhelming evidence of the true age of our planet.
I’ve got to mention another thing to you all. To a man and woman, all of my advisors, NCSE staff and skeptics alike, strongly felt that the desirable position in a situation like this is to go first. This, many of you believe, puts the onus on the other guy or gal to refute your points. I just don’t see it that way. This may be from experience in television, or it may be my misguided overconfidence; I wanted to go second in the confrontation.
To you go-firsters I say: “You may be right.” I mean you may be right, if this were a debate in an academic session, where there are thoughtful judges from the history department or tort instructors from the law school, who have the ability to determine who said what better than who to whom, per se, et cetera. But this debate was a television show. And my audience was on the worldwide web not in the auditorium. If I get the chance, I go second. I just don’t see it any other way. Whatever Ken Ham talked about, I pretty much planned to talk about what I wanted to talk about.
My agents and publicist induced Tom Foreman from CNN to moderate the event. Mr. Foreman was the ideal man for the job. He’s a thoughtful journalist with a great deal of experience in handling human conflict as he seeks the facts in a story. However, having a respected international journalist sitting on stage with us upped the ante. There would be even more focus and more scrutiny from an even bigger audience. As they say in the theater, if you stop being nervous, stop going out on stage. The key is to take that nervousness or anxiety and convert it to excitement. By the time the debate was ready to start, I sensed that Mr. Ham was nervous, while I was excited.
Tom Foreman, by long debate tradition, tossed a coin backstage. Ken Ham won the toss, and probably taking advice from his people, who were thinking a lot like my people, chose to go first. I was delighted.
From long experience behind unfamiliar lecterns in strange venues, I can tell you: something always goes wrong and you’ve got to roll with it. As I stepped up to my lectern, stage-right of Ken Ham, I realized that I had loaded a previous revision, an unintended version, of my first set of five slides for our first five minutes of presentation. I’ll let you, the viewer, determine which one I intended to leave out. Phew. . . .
If you take the time to watch, Mr. Ham repeatedly mentioned or droned on about the less-than-a-handful of scientists who subscribe to the weird idea that the Earth is crazy (or crazily) young. When my turn came, I talked about geology and the Grand Canyon. Creationists from the United States, or in Australian-born Ham’s case, in the United States, just can’t get enough of the Grand Canyon. I pointed out that not a single fossil form had tried to swim from one rock layer to another during his purported worldwide flood, only 4,000 years ago. Were we to find such a fossil, it would utterly change geology and our scientific worldview. I did a bit of engineering, pointing out that no wooden boat has ever been built as big as Ham’s imagined ark. In fact, the big ones that were built were smaller and generally twisted apart— and sank (for this I used a chart from Ham’s website). I made it personal where possible. The Nyes are an old New England family, many of whom sailed wooden ships. I also spoke of decades in the Pacific Northwest, where I observed the enormous boulders washed westward by ancient collapsing ice dams in what is now Montana.
In keeping with the idea of getting the audience to like me, I spent my first minute and a half on a joke about bow ties. I’m not sure how many of my academic colleagues would have made that choice, but I stand by it.
I pointed out that evolution is a successful theory, because it enables us to make predictions. I showed a map, a fossil, and an artist’s rendering of Tiktaalik, the extinct but quite real lizard-fish. And, I felt joy as I talked about the best theory we have to explain why meta-life forms like dandelions, velociraptors, humans, and minnows have and had sex. Yes, I said, “Sex—sex, sex, sex” to the auditorium audience. Many seemed to have their heads tossed back the way our heads move when we encounter an oncoming two-by-four.
I’ve met several people who loved (or very much enjoyed) my reference to kangaroos. Thanks to Genie and her colleagues for that: If kangaroos got off the ark in Mesopotamia, why aren’t there kangaroos in Laos? (Again, I used a map from Ham’s very website.) Then, from geology: If I find ice that has evidence of 680,000 layers of summer-winter cycles, how could the Earth be any younger? Thanks to Don for that. How can there be 9,500-year-old trees if the Earth is only 6,000 years old? And so on.
Something else I’d like to point out: From the beginning, I told Genie et al., that at some level, this thing has to be fun. Otherwise, it’s hard to be passionate and have the audience like you. Put another way, what is it that you or each of us loved about your favorite teacher or professor? I believe it’s his or her passion. It was Mr. Lang, my teacher who loved physics, who got me excited about airplanes, mechanisms, and electronics. To that end, I included a bit from astronomy. I talked about the big bang and why we, in the rest of the world, believe in it and are filled with joy by it. I figured that Mr. Ham would be at best apologetic, and at worst, just plain bewildered by it. I leave any conclusion about his reaction up to you.
Perhaps there was no winner, as this was not a scored debate. Nevertheless by all, or a strong majority of, accounts, I bested him. The fundamental idea that I hope all of us embrace is, simply put, performance counts as much or more than the specifics of the arguments in a situation like this. I admit that, for me at least, it took tremendous concentration. I was and am respectful of Ken Ham’s passion. At a cognitive level, he believes what he says. He really means it, when he says that he has “a book” that supersedes everything you and I and his parishioners can observe everywhere in nature around us. I respected that commitment; I used it to drive, what actors call, my “inner monologue.” I did not choose, as I was advised, to attack, attack, attack. My actor’s preparation helped me keep things civil and be respectful of Mr. Ham despite what struck me as his thoughtless point of view. I’m sure it influenced the countless people who’ve written to me and come up to me in public to express their strong and often enthusiastic support. Thank you all.
After the debate, my agent and I were driven back to our hotel. We were, by agreement, accompanied by two of Ham’s security people. They were absolutely grim. I admit it made me feel good. They had the countenance of a team that had been beaten—beaten badly in their own stadium. Incidentally, if the situation were reversed, I am pretty sure they are trained to feel bad about feeling good. They would manage to feel bad either way, which is consistent with Mr. Ham’s insistence on The Fall, when humankind took its first turn for the worse. And by his reckoning, we’ve been plummeting ever since.
In an interview after the debate, Piers Morgan of CNN asked Mr. Ham about climate change. Ham denied denying it, but I reminded the audience that he did deny climate change in at least one interview. It’s somehow connected, because it points to Ken Ham and his followers’ ability to exclude themselves from responsibility and from nature. It is weird and, for me, troubling.
A few weeks after the debate, Answers in Genesis held an online event in which they announced that they have or had raised the funds for their amazing “Ark Encounter” theme park, or “Ark Park.” I posted a tweet on the Twitter social media site, “Here’s hoping voters & journalists wonder: where did all those $ millions come so quickly? After a deadline?” Soon after that, Mark Looy of AIG sent an email to my office assuring me that the bonds had already been secured, before Feb. 4, i.e. before the debate—and before the unrated bonds’ deadline. I could not help but notice that Ken Ham made no mention of this during our encounter, i.e., during the debate itself. I also could not help but notice that his colleagues suggested that the debate helped close certain aspects of their Ark Park deal, later during their online event—at which not a single journalist, or anyone else for that matter, was present. These are details, but it does make me wonder, who donates those millions? I wonder if one project is leveraged against the other. I’ll leave it to the Kentucky journalism community to seek answers in this funding genesis.
I very much hope this whole business galvanizes the people in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and in neighboring states to take the time to think critically about creationism and to vote to remove it from science classrooms and texts. I frankly hope that in the coming few years not a single student in Kentucky is indoctrinated by the Answers in Genesis facilities and staff.
No matter where this leads, thanks to all of you, who’ve helped me over the years and in recent weeks to think critically and speak clearly about science and reason. It’s in the national interest to enlighten young people. The longest journey starts with but a single step. In this debate, we’ve already traveled a long way, but with projects like the Ark Park still in play, there is quite a journey yet ahead. If we keep making our arguments clear, and continue to vote and fight the political fights, together we can change the world.
Copyright Bill Nye
My colleague Maarten Boudry and I just put together a collection of essays (Philosophy of Pseudoscience, University of Chicago Press) on what philosophers call “the demarcation problem,” the issue of what exactly separates sound science from bad science and pseudoscience. It’s the kind of somewhat arcane issue of interest to philosophers and the kind of people who read the Skeptical Inquirer, but it is notoriously difficult to get the general public involved, despite the fact that pseudoscientific practices often have (negative) consequences on people’s welfare.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened a recent issue of the New York Times (September 28, 2013) and saw an article by Stephen Asma (a philosopher, it turns out) focused on the demarcation problem! This should have been good news (Hey! The most widely read paper in the world is talking about demarcation, and they asked a philosopher to do it!), except that the headline immediately gave me a bit of trepidation: “The Enigma of Chinese Medicine.”
And sure enough, my fears were unfortunately confirmed. The piece begins with a gory episode where Asma, who is married to a Chinese woman, is at a Beijing restaurant and complains of a cold. The proprietor of the restaurant—prompted by Asma’s wife—brings a live turtle to the table, slits its throat, and offers the fresh blood to Asma, who takes it (albeit uncomfortably), goes home, and “somehow” begins to feel better in the course of the following days.
Let’s set aside for a moment the ethics of brutally killing an animal that can feel plenty of pain just so that your cold becomes less importune. Asma isn’t so naive as to actually infer a causal connection between drinking turtle blood and improving cold symptoms. He mentions the placebo effect but he says, “Who knows, maybe one of these days science will discover that turtle blood does contain some chemical that has an effect on the common cold virus.” Yes, maybe. But even so, it wouldn’t be a validation of Chinese “medicine,” understood as a coherent body of practices and theories about human health. It would be just another example of a folk remedy arrived at by random trial and error that turns out to work for perfectly “Western” scientific reasons. As comedian Tim Minchin aptly put it, if “alternative” medicine works, we simply call it medicine.
The rest of Asma’s article is full of half good points and abysmal non sequiturs (which, for a philosopher, really ought to be a no-no!). For instance, he correctly points out that Karl Popper’s idea of falsification as the demarcation criterion between science and pseudoscience is too simple to account for the actual complexities of the scientific process. But then he goes on to claim that being “well versed” in logic doesn’t guarantee you won’t believe in woo. His example? Arthur Conan Doyle’s (Sherlock Holmes’s creator) belief in the curse of Tutankhamen. Asma seems to have mistaken the logical powers of Doyle’s (fictional) creation for those of the novelist, and at any rate of course acquaintance with logic doesn’t guarantee that one accepts only true beliefs. So what? Should we therefore throw out logic and critical thinking altogether?
But the real kicker arrives near the end of the article, where Asma compares Chinese medicine’s concepts of qi energy and body “meridians” with natural selection, genes, and the Higgs boson. Well, you know, they all refer to invisible entities, and they all carry “explanatory power.” Seriously? Asma himself seems to balk at the enormity of his own parallel, as he quickly adds that, admittedly, “the metaphysical causal theory [on which Chinese medicine is based] is more controversial.” Well, if by “more controversial” you mean entirely made up without a scrap of evidence and in likely contradiction of known physical laws, yes, I’d say that’s more controversial.
After telling his readers about his adventures with turtle blood and feng shui, Asma continues: “While lying on the acupuncturist’s table in China recently, I wondered if I was too skeptical or too gullible about qi.” I wonder whether the reader will be able to guess which way my own judgment on the matter lies.
The crucial question, of course, is why is an otherwise accomplished writer and philosopher like Asma writing this sort of stuff (not to mention why it gets published in the New York Times). I will not speculate on possible psychological motives (as I mentioned above, his wife is Chinese), as I don’t know the guy personally. But this sort of thing is unfortunately not unheard of among even very prominent philosophers: in the last few years philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor has coauthored a book about Darwin being wrong, and philosopher of mind (another one!) Thomas Nagel has published a volume in which he questions the current methodological and metaphysical commitments of science itself (without really offering a sensible alternative).
It is good to have people from outside of science, but who are well acquainted with its inner workings, to keep an eye on the epistemic warrant and underlying assumptions of scientific theory and practice. That’s what philosophy of science (and also history and sociology of science) at its best is supposed to do. It keeps the conversation going, and hopefully minimizes the scientistic tendencies of some practitioners of science, infusing a bit of humility and prompting more transparency in the whole enterprise. But Asma, Fodor, Nagel, and others aren’t doing science—or philosophy, for that matter—any favors by indulging in misguided criticism and the sort of “open mindedness” that Carl Sagan warned against (your brain may fall out). The demarcation problem is a serious one because science has extraordinary social cachet and commands huge sums of public financing, as well as because pseudoscience maims and even kills people. But please let turtles live in peace, and get used to the fact that there just isn’t a remedy for the common cold. Nor are there such things as qi energy and meridians.
La última vez que visité el Museo Británico, me quedé petrificado ante un trozo de barro de 15 centímetros de largo y 13 de ancho. Se conoce como la Tablilla del Diluvio, procede de Mesopotamia y fue cocida hace unos 2.700 años. Cuenta cómo el dios babilonio Ea alerta a Utnapishtim de Shuruppak de que el mundo va a sufrir una gran inundación y le dice que, para salvarse, ha de construir una embarcación en la que preservar la vida. Conocía la historia de mis tiempos de estudiante, pero, cuando vi esa pequeña muestra de escritura cuneiforme en una vitrina, me deslumbró como muchos años antes lo había hecho la piedra Rosetta. Esa tablilla babilónica es una de las pruebas de que, en el siglo VII antes de Cristo (aC), los autores del Antiguo Testamento echaron mano de tradiciones propias y ajenas para inventar el pasado de Israel.
El arqueólogo sir Austen Henry Layard encontró la Tablilla de Diluvio en Ninivé, el actual Irak, a mediados del siglo XIX. La pieza permaneció durante años en los almacenes del Museo Británico a la espera de estudio y clasificación. Allí, en 1872, el asiriólogo aficionado George Smith, de profesión impresor de billetes, identificó sus inscripciones cuneiformes como una narración del Diluvio anterior a la bíblica. “Pronto encontré la mitad de una curiosa tablilla que había contenido, evidentemente, seis columnas de texto: dos de ellas (la tercera y cuarta) estaban casi intactas; otras dos (la segunda y quinta) estaban incompletas, quedaba alrededor de la mitad; y las dos restantes (la primera y la sexta) se habían perdido por completo. Al mirar hacia abajo en la tercera columna, mis ojos captaron la afirmación de que el barco descansó sobre los montes de Nizir, seguida de la narración del envío de una paloma que, al no encontrar un lugar donde posarse, regresó. Vi enseguida que había descubierto al menos una parte de la historia caldea del Diluvio”, cuenta en su libro The Chaldean Account of Genesis (1876).
Nada más dar con la Tablilla del Diluvio, Smith se puso a buscar más fragmentos en los almacenes del museo y así descubrió que el texto correspondía a la undécima parte de un poema épico. Presentó su hallazgo el 3 de diciembre de 1872 en la Sociedad Británica de Arqueología Bíblica, donde aventuró que tenía que haber más fragmentos de episodios bíblicos enterrados en las arenas de Ninivé. Así fue, y no sólo en Ninivé. Ahora sabemos que la Tablilla del Diluvio estuvo en la biblioteca del rey Asurbanipal y que es la versión babilónica de una narración sumeria conocida como el Poema de Atrahasis.
En esa historia, cuyos restos más antiguos se remontan a la primera mitad del II milenio aC, el dios Enki avisa a Atrahasis de Shuruppak de que el dios Enlil va a destruir el mundo con un diluvio y le da instrucciones para que construya un arca en la que salvar a su familia y a todos los animales. Es la epopeya de Utnapishtim y Noé con todos sus elementos, desde la ira divina hasta el envío de la paloma, pasando por los días y noches de incesante lluvia. Un relato al que todavía no se ha puesto punto final, como demuestran los recientes hallazgos del asiriólogo británico Irving Finkel, quien presentaba en enero una tablilla con instrucciones para la construcción del arca que destruye la imagen popular de la misma creada por la tradición y reflejada en Noah, la superproducción de Darren Aronofsky que acaba de llegar a los cines.Un Arca circular
El Arca de Noé es una de las obsesiones de los literalistas bíblicos, que creen que lo narrado en las Sagradas Escrituras cristianas son hechos históricos. Intentar convencer a un fundamentalista de la imposibilidad del relato del Diluvio es una pérdida de tiempo equiparable a la de esos famosos que montan expediciones de búsqueda del Arca en el monte Ararat, el pico en el que habría varado cuando se retiraron las aguas. Astronautas, como James Irving, y actrices de medio pelo, como la vigilante de la playa Donna D’Errico, han compartido su obsesión por la búsqueda de una gran embarcación que, siguiendo el relato del Génesis, tendría 300 codos (150 metros) de longitud, 50 (30) de anchura, 30 (15) de altura, tres pisos y la puerta en un costado. Pues, bien, lo mismo que la Tablilla del Diluvio deja claro que el episodio bíblico no es original, hay otra que desmonta la visión popular de la embarcación basada en el Antiguo Testamento. Su descubridor, Irving Finkel, la ha llamado la Tablilla del Arca y acaba de publicar un libro titulado The Ark before Noah.
Finkel es especialista en escritura cuneiforme. Al igual que Smith, trabaja en el Museo Británico, donde se encarga de la conservación de los textos de la antigua Mesopotamia, la tierra entre ríos donde empezó la Historia. En 1985, un hombre llamado Douglas Simmonds le llevó varias tablillas que había heredado de su padre, un militar que había estado destinado en Oriente Próximo durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial. “Me sorprendí más de lo que puedo decir al descubrir que una de sus tablillas cuneiformes era una copia de la historia babilónica del Diluvio”, recordaba el arqueólogo hace unos meses en The Daily Telegraph. El dueño de la pieza, que data de entre 1900 y 1700 aC, no se la dejó para su estudio, y Finkel la perdió de vista durante años, hasta que los dos hombres se reencontraron con motivo de una exposición sobre Babilonia que acogió el museo londinense en 2009. Entonces, Simmonds accedió a dejar al historiador el trozo de barro, del tamaño de un moderno móvil, y lo que el experto descubrió es que contenía las instrucciones para construir el Arca.
“La característica más notable proporcionada por la Tablilla del Arca es que el bote salvavidas construido por Atrahasis -el héroe del estilo de Noé que recibe sus instrucciones del dios Enki- es, sin duda, circular. «Dibuja el barco que vas a hacer -le instruye- sobre una planta circular»”, apunta Finkel. Esta particularidad resulta chocante hoy en día, cuando hasta un niño sabe que el Arca de Noé fue un barco grande con una especie de caseta a dos aguas en cubierta. Una imagen que se corresponde con la del navío que buscan desde hace décadas algunos en el monte Ararat, basada en la vaga descripción del Génesis. Pero lo más sorprendente para el asiriólogo es que, por primera vez, las instrucciones para salvar a los animales incluyen la idea de hacerlo en parejas, como en el muy posterior relato bíblico.
El Diluvio Universal formaba parte del acervo humano desde mucho antes de su incorporación a la tradiciones judía, cristiana e islámica. Nació en una Mesopotamia donde las inundaciones eran frecuentes y retrata a divinidades despiadadas que, como los hombres se portan mal, deciden acabar ¡con toda la vida de la Tierra! Es parte de nuestro legado cultural, como lo son la Ilíada y El Quijote. Éste y otros episodios bíblicos son parte de nuestra historia, aunque nunca sucedieron. Es el mensaje que puede asumir sin problemas una mayoría de creyentes y el que debería interiorizar todo escéptico: no hay que creer para disfrutar de Los Diez Mandamientos ni de los frescos de Miguel Ángel en la Capilla Sixtina. Ahora que algunos integristas arremeterán contra Noah por ser infiel a sus creencias, conviene recordarles que está tan basada en hechos reales como la trilogía de El señor de los anillos. Cuando la vaya a ver, lo único que me preocupará es divertirme.
Question: How does an avid ghost hunter and true believer in paranormal phenomena turn into an avowed skeptical commentator?
Answer: With inherent curiosity, a genuine quest for the truth, a baloney detection filter, and a friend of like mind to help you along the path.
This is the story of Bobby and Jason, formerly known as paranormal investigators, now known as the hosts of a weekly live-audio show, five years running, called Strange Frequencies Radio. SFR has had guests that run the gamut from Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to a paranormal advocate who calls himself OrbDog.
Bobby and Jason have accomplished a transformation the likes of which remain mysterious and elusive—giving up on ghosts.The Old Days
At age sixteen, Bobby Nelson began ghost hunting at his friends' houses. He had had personal experiences in his own home that he interpreted, at the time, as paranormal. A devout Christian, Bobby was taught that if you believed in evolution, you were going to hell. Demons were real. There was life after death. He recalls that the original “Ghost Hunter” Harry Price was his idol, and he aspired to obtain a degree in parapsychology, eventually starting his own investigation group.
For Jason Korbus, it was curiosity about the unknown and macabre that drew him to paranormal investigation. From a non-religious background, he never had an experience that he would have labeled “paranormal” but was a fan true crime stories and of TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings that had actual scientists commenting. The stories looked legitimate, like a news broadcast. These shows reinforced his belief in ghosts. He saw Ghost Hunters and was amazed people did this for a living. Why not give this a try? So he did and joined a paranormal group.
In their twenties, in Toledo, Ohio, they became friends through their mutual interest of the paranormal. With their respective groups now one organization, eventually named Phase 3 Paranormal, they visited people’s houses in and around Ohio, collected EVPs and electromagnetic readings, interviewed the witnesses to the events and wrote up case reports, just like all the other paranormal groups. They believed they had found paranormal activity and had concluded this was evidence of ghosts. EVPs were concluded to be the voices of the dead. They recruited interested individuals for the group via MySpace, craigslist, and the local paper. No special qualifications were needed to join although they administered an exam to new recruits to see how much they knew about the paranormal. Bobby remembers the ease in which people would give their social security number to him under the pretense of a “background check.” This was his ploy to test for trustworthiness, since he had no means to actually run a background check. He figured if they would give him their SSN, they had nothing to hide.
Jason says they definitely were a “sciencey” group. They “absolutely” thought they were doing science—because of the equipment. For example, Jason explained to me that they would take a “baseline reading” of the house by walking around the rooms very slowly, waving the EMF meter around and recording the numbers on paper. Then later, after they “provoked” the ghost, they would do the same thing a second time and record the numbers.
Bobby says: “For some reason, when you have that meter in your hand and you are looking for ghosts, that meter makes you feel like an expert. The piece of equipment in their hand that they think is giving them data they can use to somehow correlated with a ghost…they feel sweet!”
Equipment made them feel important. Teams judged each other by their equipment. While thermal imaging cameras (especially FLIR systems) were the epitome of the equipment bragging rights (TAPS, the Ghost Hunters TV show group, had a FLIR). The next best was the trifield meter. “If you could afford a trifield, you were badass,” says Bobby. “I had a trifield!” Jason adds.
They would make fun of other groups who used dowsing rods or mediums as not being “scientific.”
What was it about EVPs, I asked, that was “scientific”?
“Sharon,” Jason says slowly in a fake patronizing tone, “it was a RECORDER and it was DIGITAL! We were getting voices from dead people!” At the time they relied on such devices, it was not a joke. They felt they were on the verge of finding something extraordinary; that is, documented evidence of ghosts. Believing science was ignoring the paranormal, they were seeing it for themselves.
Both Jason and Bobby wrote for a citizen journalist website. Bobby wrote about demonic possession and experiences with the Ouija board. Jason wrote a scathing piece challenging the scientific community to take the paranormal seriously. To this day, their pieces are still online and prompt emails from readers, media requests, or messages from others who want to quote the material. This is a point of extreme embarrassment to both men who have repeatedly tried to get the material off the web. But, because it belongs to the publisher they can’t get it removed. So they must repeatedly explain to those that inquire why they no longer believe at all what they wrote years ago. (See their more modern writing at The Bent Spoon.)What Happened Along the Way?
Both Jason and Bobby were observant and started to notice some disturbing inconsistencies in the field.
While they didn’t want to admit it then, they were basing their techniques—and even their jargon—on the Ghost Hunters TV show. They assumed what was on TV was valid because everyone else was doing it too. They did the “reveal” for the client. Jason remembers he used to always say, “We’re here to help,” just like they did on the show.
Half of their cases seemed to be attributable to haunted people rather than haunted houses. “I don’t know what you found before, but this house is REALLY haunted,” was a frequent repeat quote. Often they found that other ghost groups had been there before them and told the residents that EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) were obtained with crazy results. This freaked people out and reinforced their fears. People were attributing everything that went wrong in the house to the “negative energy” present—health issues, fighting in relationships, even an abscessed tooth was reasoned to have something to do with a ghost.
Jason and Bobby describe the paranormal mantra of “there are no real experts in this field” as “a bubble you can put over yourselves.” It was an anything goes atmosphere without standards. They couldn't help but wonder how certain people on certain teams could get such different results. How come Bobby and Jason didn’t see ghosts like others did?
When they began asking questions, the façade started to crack.
They couldn’t find definitive answers regarding electromagnetic field readings. What was really happening there? Are there other explanations?
When they did the flashlight tests and EMF readings at NONHAUNTED locations, why did they get similar results as a HAUNTED location?
Jason recalls a test they set up to check so-called “Class-A” EVPs, the best quality. “We’d play an EVP for five or six different people and we’d say write down your answer independently. Don’t tell us what you think it’s saying, we’ll go over it later,” Jason says. “People would write down what they thought these so-called ‘Class-A EVPs’ were saying and we’d get six different answers. Remember these were supposed to be Class-A unmistakable EVPs….”
Bobby owned a recording studio. He took some EVPs to his sound engineer who was only able to tell him that it was within the range of human hearing but not if it was anything unique. He certainly didn't say they were paranormal.
They relate one incident where Jason knew he’d zipped up his backpack during an investigation. On the audio playback, someone else said it sounded like a voice saying “Del Rio.” They started to think these EVPs were not all that reliable. If it was this easy to make a mistake in interpretation, what about all the other “evidence” they had?
But they didn’t always welcome their new inklings of doubt. Bobby calls them “woo woo moments”: “I would say ‘Am I being too skeptical here? Am I being so skeptical that I’m preventing my brain from seeing paranormal activity?’”
There was no final AHA moment for either of them; it all just gradually slipped away.Strange Frequencies or “Phase 4”
The pair had been planning to do an Internet radio show for a while. It was taking them forever to get going on it.
On October 31, 2008, Ghost Hunters aired a show live from Fort Delaware. The show prompted an outcry from viewers that they had faked some of the evidence. Jason remembers he didn’t like how the community was reacting. This was the team that had inspired them, now they were accused of duping their audience. This event was further material for the pair's evolving views. “We were disillusioned specifically with the team that we looked to for inspiration,” Jason says. “Maybe all this stuff on TV is fake.”
So at the start of Strange Frequencies Radio in late 2008, they still held a belief in the paranormal but it was significantly eroding by then.
Bobby says Jason “gave up the ghost” before he did. When Jason admitted he didn’t believe in this stuff anymore, Bobby was upset. “I was f**king crushed! It killed me inside to hear him say he didn’t believe in ghosts.” Yet Bobby was also well along the path of skeptical thinking.
Peer influence and community interaction affects how we relate to issues in our society. Bobby and Jason’s paranormal investigations had been influenced by pop culture and the paranormal community. Now, their circles of influence were changing.
Bobby is proud of the regular phone conversations he used to have with William Roll, an esteemed parapsychologist who investigated poltergeists and haunting cases. Roll died in January of 2012. Roll had mentioned James Randi in his conversations in a not-very-complimentary way. Bobby wondered, who was this guy, Randi? Randi came on SFR for an interview. Bobby recalls how he tried to nail him with the standard tropes such as the law of thermodynamics. It’s an embarrassing memory now, as are many of their public pro-paranormal pronouncements. Randi has since been on SFR additional times; Jason and Bobby consider him a critical influence on their thinking as well as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, and Kenny Biddle (another ghost hunter turned skeptical advocate). The tone of SFR has changed drastically over the years.
What also fell away was Bobby’s religious faith. He can’t remember everything but remarks that Dawkins’s The God Delusion and god is not Great by Hitchens were essential to his re-examination of his continued belief in life after death even after discarding faith in ghosts. Little by little, his faith died. “I had a moment when…yeah, I just didn’t have it anymore.”
The supernatural and paranormal ideas had all evaporated. Their enthusiasm and curiosity, however, had not.
While listening to their discussions on Strange Frequencies Radio (SFR) for about two years now and interviewing them for this piece, it seemed to me there was CLEARLY something about their friendship that played a part in their individual journeys from paranormal advocates to critics. I asked them how much of an influence they had on each other. They both agreed it had been significant. They had reinforced each other in the practice of questioning, examining, and gaining new perspective.
Bobby would ask questions, and then would buy a book. Jason would borrow the book. They would discuss their new ideas. “It was good to have Bobby there—the only one willing to go down that road with me,” Jason states, “anyone else would get hostile.” No criticism was allowed in the ghost hunting clubhouse. It still isn't. Given the label “paranormal unity” by active participants, this proposal was basically an agreement to not make fun of or disparage other groups and their ideas.
Think about that—no critique. No mistakes are ever corrected. No progress is ever made. And that’s how it currently stands, years later, with popular paranormal investigation.
The case reports from Phase 3 Paranormal investigations remain in binders and in boxes. The media contacts don’t respond after hearing their new stance that demons don’t exists or Ouija boards aren’t a portal to the afterlife. The websites of dozens of other ghost groups that used to be active in Ohio have been neglected for years now as the novelty wore off and real life intervened. Some things change and some stay the same.
It's easy to believe. It takes an effort to be skeptical. As we see with Jason and Bobby, you have to stop and train yourself to think this new way and let go of a previously sacred idea. When Bobby heard the explanation of his paranormal experiences long ago as sleep paralysis instead of demons, he says he was comforted by the reality-based explanation, not disappointed.
Many people invested in paranormal belief and research will not be able to let their decades of investment go. Bobby reasons that he didn't have as strong of an emotional tie to paranormal ideas as some people. He understands that people don't want to accept their time and money has been wasted. And to some, there is a deep-seated need to validate the afterlife, believing things like: “that orb is Grandma.” No matter what.
These days on Strange Frequencies Radio, they are able to have productive conversations with those who still may hold on to those paranormal beliefs. Recently, they have started exploring with guests a common point of disbelief between them. Invariably, they will find a parallel in baseless assumptions with what they do believe. They will attempt to explore that aspect and maybe in the process, plant that seed of doubt. Sometimes, that's all you can do.
Jason is clear about his beliefs: no ghosts, no paranormal, no supernatural at all. “I don't care that people do [believe that stuff], but keep your hobby out of other people's houses.” Both men regret that they may have done harm to people by telling them what they thought was true at the time. They thought they were helping. Now they hope they are helping spread critical thinking about the paranormal.
“Don't visit your BS beliefs on other people,” Jason warns. “Don't make the same mistakes we did.”
Instead, we can hope such conversions inspire people to make the right turns, away from nonsense and towards a more solid worldview built on evidence instead of TV pseudo-reality.
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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———. 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.
National Cancer Institute. 2013a. Antineoplastons: Laboratory/Animal/Preclinical Studies. 4/9/2013. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/antineoplastons/healthprofessional/page4.
———. 2013b. Antineoplastons (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute 2013 4/9/2013. Available at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/antineoplastons/healthprofessional.
Null, G. 1979. The suppression of cancer cures. Penthouse (October): 90–96.
Sandler, M., and H.G. Close 1959. Biochemical effect of phenylacetic acid in a patient with 5-hydroxytryptophan-secreting carcinoid tumor. Lancet 2 (7098): 316–18.
Setlow, B. 1997. Georges Ungar and memory transfer. Journal of the History of Neuroscience 6(2): 181–92.
Smith, M.E.G. 1992. The Burzynski controversy in the United-States and in Canada—A comparative case-study in the sociology of alternative medicine. Canadian Journal of Sociology-Cahiers Canadiens De Sociologie 17(2): 133–160.
Somers, S., 2009. Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski. In Knockout: Interviews With Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer and How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. Crown Publishing: New York, pp. 59–86.
Stuplich, M., et al. 2012. Late and prolonged pseudoprogression in glioblastoma after treatment with lomustine and temozolomide. Journal of Clinical Oncology 30(21): e180–83.
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/.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2009.Warning Letter: Burzynski Research Institute IRB (October 5). Available at http://www.fda.gov/ICECI/EnforcementActions/WarningLetters/ucm192711.htm.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2013a. Investigational New Drug (IND) Application. 04/25/2013 .
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2013b Warning Letter: Burzynski Research Institute IRB (September 5). Available at http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ScienceResearch/SpecialTopics/RunningClinicalTrials/ComplianceEnforcement/UCM369521.pdf.
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.
Some time ago, Wanna Marchi, a popular Italian TV personality, sold lottery numbers that she claimed could allow her viewers to win. When some of the numbers actually did win (as probability dictated), the appreciation from her clients grew. However, when more often than not the numbers did not win, it was even better for her. To those who complained, Marchi said that their numbers did not win the lottery because someone had put the “evil eye” on them. In financial terms, this meant that if she took 150 euros ($200), in order to sell the “lucky” numbers, she could now ask for over 2,000 euros ($2,700) in order to dispel the evil eye. When finally Marchi was arrested on charges of criminal conspiracy, aggravated fraud, and extortion, her assets amounted approximately to 32 million euros ($43 million), plus numerous villas and apartments all over Italy.
The evil eye is a lucrative business for many psychics and charlatans. However, the risks run by those who decide to rely on these frauds are often much worse than just a bloodletting to their pocketbooks. Not too long ago, the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl, worried about a persistent pain in her daughter’s stomach, decided to turn to “Wizard Tony” from Lecce. After paying one thousand euros for the consultation, the woman had agreed to submit the daughter to a long series of “sessions” against the evil eye. Left alone with the “wizard,” the girl was raped, and it was only after several months that the girl was able to overcome her fear of the threats that the fraudster addressed to her in order to induce her to silence, and confide to her mother what had really happened during those “sessions.” Cases like this are reported almost every day in newspapers; just as many, if not more, remain hidden.It’s False, But . . .
The late anthropologist Alfonso M. Di Nola, in The Mirror and the Oil (Yale University Press), called the evil eye “a negative and harmful power exercised by people, things, animals and special situations on other men, intentionally or unintentionally.”
This type of superstition has always existed and, though widespread in the Mediterranean area, is alive and persistent in most parts of the world under different names: “evil eye” in Anglophone countries; “horeh ayin” in Hebrew; “droch shuil” in Scotland; “mauvais oeil” in France; “böse blick” in Germany; and “ayin harsha” in Arabic.
At the basis of the belief there seems to be the power attributed to the eye as a source of ominous and destructive influence. “The Evil Eye,” continues Di Nola, “seems to be originally connected to a magical power attributed to looking, eagerly or enviously, to other people’s property. Hence, one of the names by which the ancient designated it is ‘envy’ that, in its etymological composition, means to look bad or look against (in = against, video = to look).”
Although the evil eye is a belief devoid of any scientific foundation, for those who believe it can have a very real effect. “This belief,” explains psychotherapist Armando De Vincentiis, “can lead to a suggestion so intense that it can generate in those who believe a predisposition for seeking negative opportunities and for becoming a victim of bad luck, according to well-known self-destructive tendencies.” One could almost say that believing in the evil eye can bring bad luck.
“One of my patients,” continues De Vincentiis, “believed she had been the victim of the evil eye and had turned for help to a psychic. The girl already had some psychological weaknesses that the skillful wizard immediately recognized and exploited for his plans. The so-called occult practitioner did no more than confirm the imaginary fears of the women through the use of some rituals that showed the suspected curse. Once the sessions were over, the extremely negative aspect—in addition to a considerable loss of money—was the worsening of her already proven mental health. In the long term, in fact, the belief that she had been the victim of a supernatural and uncontrollable event prompted the girl to interpret everything, even the simplest of facts, from a supernatural point of view. In short, she walked away from reality more and more and an anguish grew in her, linked to the fear of being hit at any time by events beyond her control, as well as her dependence to unscrupulous individuals.”
It would be wrong, however, to think that people who believe in the evil eye are ignorant or naive. A recent EURISPES poll, in fact, shows that victims of frauds and scams in at least 14 percent of the cases have a high school diploma or a university degree. On the other hand, even though superstition seems absurd, we should not feel too guilty for, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “no living creature is subject to the absurd, except for man.” In other words, if we try to make sense of the absurdity of the world (perhaps in a very loose way, such as with superstition) it is precisely because we are endowed with a rational mind.Easy Rituals
So, what are the rituals through which psychics are able to convince their customers that they are victims of the evil eye? Here are the most popular ones.
Oil in the water. A drop of oil is put into a dish containing water. Depending on the oil droplet remaining united or being broken down in many smaller droplets, the psychic can draw conclusions about the presence or lack of the evil eye. It is actually a chemical reaction and anyone can experiment with it. Take two bowls and wash them with detergent and warm water. Put a cotton ball soaked in oil inside one bowl. Introduce an equal amount of water to the two bowls. At this point, let a drop of oil fall from the same height in the water of each bowl. On the “anointed” one the drop of oil will remain localized in a very restricted area. Conversely, in the clean one the drop will break. The difference in behavior in the two bowls can be easily interpreted in terms of surface tension, as amended by the presence of traces of oil on the plate treated with the cotton ball.
The presence or absence of the evil eye, in short, depends on the fact that the bowl was washed more or less well or, in some cases, was “prepared” beforehand.
Water and salt. Some psychics propose to dissolve a large handful of salt in a glass of water: if the salt does not dissolve, they claim it is because of the evil eye. Just try it, though, and you will see that the salt will never dissolve for the simple fact that the solution is saturated. Simply increase the amount of water and the salt will completely dissolve.
In another version of this trick, the psychic asks the customer to put the salt in a glass of water: if, after a few days, the salt “rises” to the edge of the glass the presence of the evil eye is certain. It is actually a normal physical-chemical process. If you take a glass full of water and you put so much salt until it is unable to dissolve any more, after a few days the water evaporates. First, a crust forms along the edges of the liquid, and then the water continues to evaporate and salt crystals are deposited also on the bottom of the glass. Meanwhile, the crust on the walls increases and rises to the brim. The phenomenon is due to the fact that the liquid rises by capillarity along the first crust, evaporates further, other crystalline deposits form, and so on.
Eggs and pillows. The previous demonstrations have in common the fact that they can also be produced in good faith. The phenomena, that is, always take place and are always inexplicable for those with no knowledge of physics and chemistry. However, there are other methods used by fake psychics to diagnose the evil eye that involve intentional fraud.
In one of these, the psychic takes a hen’s egg, passes it over the victim’s body and then breaks it into a saucer, revealing inside it some hair, dead insects, dirt, ashes... The truth is that, before the “test,” the psychic prepared the egg, making a small hole at one end and from there inserted the hair and the rest of the dirt, finally closing the hole with a drop of glue. If the victim desires to hold the egg before the ritual, the psychic gives her a “healthy” one and then, in a moment of distraction, switches it with the prepared one.
In another test, disturbing objects such as feathers clotted in balls, dolls full of pins, animal bones and so on are found inside the pillow or mattress on which the victim usually sleeps. In these cases, it is always the psychic or an accomplice who hides the objects where they will be found. In certain situations, the culprit could even be a member of the family of the victim, persuaded in helping the fraudster by making him believe that this is what is needed in order to “cure” the sick person.
Waterproof photograph. This is a system used to convince a client that the protection from the evil eye, following the intervention of magical powers, is assured. Taking a photograph of the customer, the wizard plunges it into a pan of water and then extracts it perfectly dry. It is once again a chemical effect due to the fact that, before the test, the magician has sprinkled the water with lycopodium powder. This is a very fine powder, sold in health food stores, composed of the spores of a plant, which has the power of turning waterproof whatever is immersed in the lycopodium-infused water.
These are just a few examples of how mischievous simple scientific reactions can become when handled by a well-informed crook to manipulate someone willing to believe.Acknowledgements
Thanks to my good friends and colleagues from CICAP, Luigi Garlaschelli and Silvano Fuso, for the chemistry detailed in this article, and to Armando De Vincentiis for allowing me to interview him for this article.
Recently a video has been making the rounds on the internet showing security camera video of a glass plate flying off the shelf of a store in New Hampshire. What causes the plate to fly across the room in unknown, but some “ghost experts” have chimed in identifying a 14 year-old-ghost girl and her father. The pair was allegedly run over by horses in the last century.
We posted the story to our Facebook page and soon after we received a comment from Robert Hyrum Hirschi:
Robert Hyrum Hirschi: As a vfx artist I could recreate this using practical fx or vfx. It'd take all of 15 minutes.
So, we asked him to go ahead, and this is the video you see above.
Later he volunteered to do another video and explain how he created the first one:
I made the original video very quickly to prove how easy it is to do this kind of effect.
It is a combination of two video clips and a couple of mattes. The clip with no bottle movement is the background video. The other video is the action of the bottle being pulled from the table by a piece of string taped to it.
Software is used to create a mask that only shows the bottle on the action video. The rest of what you see is the background video. The background video has no string. A couple of mattes are used to hide other movement and the static bottle. This process works very well and is a staple of the vfx industry.
On the second video I added another movement effect and explained how they are done.
The fact is this effect could be done a number of ways. I chose a string for two reasons - it's easy to mask the string out and it'll create the most realistic movement blurs and shadows.
Given time I could make a 3D model of the glass and place it in a 3D mapped rendition of that room with realistc shadows. I could make it dance.
This is high definition video at 29.97 frames per second.
I do vfx professionally but making an object appear to fly off a table in a low-res security cam video could be achieved by an amateur. It could be done using microfilament scotch-taped to the object for instance. It's only a few frames in grainy low-light. If this can be quickly achieved in HD it's not a stretch to be skeptical about the New Hampshire store video.
The Ghost in the Kitchen Explained
Now, of course, we are not saying that this is how the store video was made. We are not even saying that there is any trickery involved at all. We don’t know. Yet. It is important to remember that the quality of the video is so poor that it really could be anything. But we do feel that people should understand that the “ghost” explanation is the least likely of all and should not be brought out immediately at the drop of a plate.
Baba Brinkman is a Canadian rap artist, writer, and performer and the creator of “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” a hip-hop exploration of modern evolutionary biology, natural selection and evolutionary psychology. Fast, furious, and not for the faint-hearted, his performances have shocked and delighted listeners worldwide.
“The Rap Guide to Evolution” was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe and has even become a teaching resource. Since then, he has followed up with a number of ventures, including more albums, TEDx talks, and a sequel stage show specifically about evolutionary psychology. “The Rap Guide to Human Nature,” was adapted into a new production, “Ingenious Nature,” and ran off-Broadway from November 2012 through to January 2013.
In 2014, he has plans to complete a documentary, provisionally titled “Darwin’s America,” and will be heading to the New York City Skeptics’ North East Conference on Science And Skepticism before touring across Australia in May/June.
Baba Brinkman: When I first started, I did a show about The Canterbury Tales. I used to perform my rap adaptation of Chaucer on tour.
I took it to Australia and I took it to England and while I was in England, a biology teacher happened to see the show and he saw the potential. He reached out to me and said, “If you can do The Canterbury Tales, I bet you can do The Origin of Species.”
I was not a science person; I had only a comparative literature background but he encouraged me and offered to be my scientific expert consultant. He peer reviewed the raps. I would write the songs, send him the lyrics and he’d come back with comments and at the end I could feel like what I was saying in the songs was actually articulating the scientific consensus around Darwinian biology.
Therefore, I’m just a messenger—don’t shoot the messenger! If you don’t like the message, take it up with your biology professors at your university because this is what they all teach!
Kylie: Your work has been incredibly successful. You won the Scotsman’s Fringe First award in 2009. You’ve traveled worldwide, including heading to Australia again in 2014. Did you ever expect this kind of success?
Baba: I can’t say that I did, really. I started out quite small. I just wrote the original raps, “Guide to Evolution,” songs to perform at a Darwin-themed conference, and then took it to a couple of festivals. The response has just been really overwhelming.
I think it’s something that I guess people are ready for. There are a lot of people that are interested in evolution but not really sure what you can say about it that’s definitive or what it explains in terms of human behavior.
I think that’s the part of the show that’s resonated the most with people, is not just explaining Darwin’s vision but celebrating it and looking at how it can actually be seen as inspirational and empowering for us.
It’s been a great ride. The highlight for me came a couple years ago when I got to open for Stephen Hawking at a festival! I got to go on stage before he did his lecture and just also just after him. While I was performing from on stage I looked over to the side and he and his retinue had stayed to watch the show from the wings. There was Stephen Hawking parked at the side of the stage while I performed the raps.
Kylie: What have been some of the challenges of bringing science and music together, particularly rap, which I guess has got an urban attitude to it? I don’t really think of it as being complementary to science, in my mind…
Baba: If you think of science as beakers in a chemistry lab or astronomy, a lot of the physical sciences would be more of a leap—but evolution is about behavioral sciences. Rap is, if nothing else, human behavior. It’s human behavior on display.
The subject matter of rap is betrayals and conflicts and competitions and status clashes and reproductive challenges.
Basically, a lot of evolutionary biology, when it comes to behavior, really boils down to attracting mates and defeating rivals. That is what rap is all about. If you listen to the lyrics it’s about those two topics.
I just went through a load of hip-hop songs. My background is more with hip-hop than biology, so I’ve got this literacy where I can quote my way through rap songs. I just show how what the rappers are talking about are their personal stories and experiences—but they’re also speaking universal human stories and experiences.
If you want to go even further—universal mammalian stories and experiences. There’s nothing unique about rap in that regard. You could do the same thing with Shakespeare. You could do the same thing with any narrative art form that talks about human dramas and human behaviors.
Because human behaviors have an evolutionary logic and an evolutionary history they lend themselves to evolutionary analysis. Rap just seems to work very well for that because it’s a sequence of brash statements that can be used as signposts to understand what are the agendas and strategies of the organisms in questions—which in this case happens to be rappers.
Kylie: What happens with audiences who are less than open to the scientific side? Not everyone’s going to be pro-evolution, as it were. What’s been the outcome when you’ve had audiences who question or might be even out rightly antagonistic to your message?
Baba: It’s been mixed! I haven’t had a hostile takeover or been shouted down in the midst of a show but I have had strong negative feedback from the creationist side because the show’s very pro‑evolution and pro‑Darwin.
I’ve built a mechanism into the show, which is like a pressure release valve or something. It’s at the end of each show I ask the audience for feedback. I make the point that the audience feedback is really the crucial function that allows artists to evolve their craft because without audience feedback you wouldn’t have any directional sensibility about how to change or improve what you’re doing.
I put it to the audience: “Any reaction that you have to the show, please voice it now.” I take three responses and then I’ll do a freestyle rap that riffs what the three responses are. Lots of those responses have been from creationists.
The twist is, of course, that I’m not going to uncritically absorb all feedback. I’m just going to take all feedback into consideration. If I don’t think it squares with the evidence or is a good, logical argument than I might just end up making fun of it instead of absorbing it. I’m hoping to hear everything!
At the time, right now, we’re in the midst of filming a documentary that is going to be about half finished when I come to Australia. The documentary follows the show on tour in the American South. We’ve been to Mississippi and we’re going to Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas.
We’re going to take the show to where it’s going to be the most controversial and have conversations with people about what kind of reaction they have and whether it’s helped them to move forward in terms of accepting, understanding, or being open to evolution as a concept.
Kylie: Fascinating. As you said, you’re heading to Australia in May. What are some of the other projects that you’re working on in the future?
Baba: I’m excited to be hitting up all these venues all across Australia. While I’m touring Australia I’m also going to be working on writing some new stuff. When I started doing “The Rap Guide to Evolution,” I originally conceived of it as a trilogy where the first one would be about evolution. The second one would be about human nature and psychology. The third one would be about religion. I’m actually zeroing in on that now.
I’m working on “A Rap Guide to Religion,” which is going to premiere in August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That seems to be the main motive for people to be disinterested or to reject the science. It also seems to be a source of a lot of disagreements and conflicts in the world.
I’m interested in the evolutionary view of where religion comes from as a behavior and how can you understand religion from an evolutionary standpoint, which it turns out you can. There’s a whole thriving field, evolutionary religious studies. That’s going to be one of my next shows!
Kevin Trudeau doesn’t have very good taste. I know because I just got back from his house in Ojai, California. Or rather, the house he once owned. His remaining worldly possessions were today sold in an estate sale to repay, by court order, those he scammed with his #1 bestselling book, The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. No one knows exactly who “they” are, but they’re clearly the establishment, people who run our lives from corporate offices we will never see, churning out pills and products and telling our doctors, politicians, and bankers how to turn us into profitable suckers. “They” don’t want us to know a lot of stuff, as evinced by Trudeau’s other book titles: Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About and Debt Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. But, unfortunately for Kevin, it turns out “they” don’t want us to know some of the things in his books because they are nonsense and can hurt or maybe even kill you. For example:
All non-prescription, over the counter and prescription drugs and medications of any kind absolutely, 100% are proven to lead to weight gain and obesity. All non-prescription, over the counter and prescription drugs and medications of any kind absolutely, 100% cause illness and disease. This is proven.
Actually, no, it’s not. While weight gain is a common side effect of many drugs, it is by no means true of every drug, and even those drugs which do cause weight gain in some patients don’t make everyone overweight. But he goes on:
Every time you take even the smallest amount of even the most common medications you are causing severe damage to the human body. It is advised... that you avoid any and all non-prescription, over-the counter medications, and prescription drugs.
As Kevin found out, when you say things like this, knowing full well that people may stop taking their insulin or bipolar medicine or any number of life-saving medications, and you have no evidence to back up your claims, sometimes you end up in prison.
Mr. Trudeau ended up behind bars last November with a $37.6 million fine to pay back the American public for peddling potentially lethal nonsense. At first, Trudeau claimed he was too broke to pay up, but when the FTC pointed out that he had recently spent $900 at a liquor store, $920 on cigars, and $180 on a haircut (twice!), a federal judge incarcerated Trudeau, saying “This is not an infomercial. You can’t talk your way out of this.” Since then, Trudeau has been forced to liquidate his possessions, including his Ojai home (listed at $1.2 million) and everything in it.
When I showed up at 8 a.m. on a rainy Friday to pick through the remains of the TV pitchman’s life, I was surprised at the modest size of his house. Although Ojai is a pricey vacation town (its proximity to the ocean and wine country, matched with a country aesthetic, make it an enviable location), the house itself is a single story with three bathrooms, perhaps owing to Trudeau’s on-again, off-again fortune. Maybe he never had time to scale up between paying fees and getting the FTC off his back. I joined five cars’ worth of bargain hunters. My number: 36.
As the group waited under a rain-shielding cabana, I listened in on a conversation between three local men who knew Trudeau.
“That jury only deliberated a few minutes,” said a young brunette gentleman I’ll call Ted, waving his umbrella about nervously, “And then they just send him off to prison.”
“Yeah, it’s really not fair. I mean, he wasn’t a saint, but who did he really hurt?” his friend replied.
Actually, a lot of people. One consumer reviews site with 812 independent reviews of Trudeau’s wares reveals 90% of reviewers gave his products one or two stars (78% and 12%, respectively), and nearly all of the reviews call his business a “scam.” As for “actually hurting” someone, it would be hard to tell how many people Trudeau talked out of taking their medicines or seeing their doctors, especially if they are dead.
“Did you know him?” I interrupted, startling Ted.
“Yes...” he said. Then he turned back to his friends and lowered his voice. “Unfortunately, they can sentence him on criminal charges intended for real bad guys,” he said under his breath.
This tendency to trail off when people spoke of Trudeau would be repeated all morning.
“I mean, he just gave his opinion....”
“Some people think he was saying vitamins cure everything, but he says that wasn’t the point, so....”
“I read the books and I thought they were interesting, but I don’t know. I’m not a doctor or anything....”
“And really, who did he hurt?”
I wanted to tell them who; that Trudeau was a vulture, preying on people at their most vulnerable, and it was possible that the “advice” he was dishing out could kill them. And the harm wasn’t just in getting people to forgo real medical care; some of it was direct. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About recommends colonic irrigation fifteen times in one month, using additional “colon cleanse” products, and performing heavy metal cleansing (also known as chelation therapy) at home. All of these suggestions can carry heavy consequences and are of dubious benefit.
A few of us slowly trickled inside. I peaked through the front door at the lavish interior: faux stone archways, peach and crimson draperies hanging from the high ceilings, and two enormous chandeliers.
“It’s like being in the Sistine Chapel,” said one man as he exited, carrying what he claimed was a 17th century Mong vase he bought for $35. All of us watched this millionaire’s belongings pour out of his home, one piece at a time. People shuffled to their cars through the rain, bits of his life in their hands.
“Too bad he had such bad taste,” said one collector. He drove off with a lighting fixture bouncing in his passenger seat.
Finally, at 11:45 a.m., it was my turn to go in. I pushed through the jealous crowd. Everyone interrogated me.
“What number are you?!”
“36!” I snapped. In just a few hours, I’d gone native. I was ready to hunt for bargains, clean up the refuse that this huckster left in the wake of his crimes. Walking through the front door was like stepping into a luxury furniture store. Nothing looked lived in, the taste was grotesque, but it oozed wealth.
A baby grand piano sat in the corner, looking as if it had never been played. Gold and pastel rugs hung on the walls and lay on the floors. Paintings took up any extra wall space, the kind of paintings that depict nothing and are about nothing but point out that the owner has everything.
The living room had several large pieces of art stacked on the floor and two huge, puffy gold couches.
“Don’t put your things on the couches! My GOD!” screamed one of the attendants as someone tried to rearrange their loot on a cushion.
To one side of the living room was a bar area, complete with Waterford crystal, expensive alcohol, and fancy cocktail accoutrement. I wondered what these things were really worth. The estate sale workers seemed to be pricing everything quite high. We were all here for bargains, slashed prices on a millionaire fraud’s ill-gotten gains. But they wanted almost as much as each item was worth. And with all the profits going to the cheated masses, it was hard to argue with their logic. Even if, in a small way, we were helping Trudeau meet his legal obligations.
The kitchen was full of nice cookware and dinner settings. For someone who hocked natural cures and constantly promoted gadgets, the kitchen was stocked with fairly ordinary wares, except perhaps for an “e-mug,” which read ENERGY-ENERGY-ENERGY around its base. In one corner of the kitchen, a small stack of items had been neglected by the other shoppers. I pawed through it and found a pair of sunglasses, clearly Kevin’s. I had seen the style on him before, and they were a pricey Italian brand. I picked them up for my friend Ross and asked the attendant to name a price.
“Um, $10,” she said. Jackpot. Finally, I found something whose worth they didn’t know. I was doing it right!
Next was the garage, full of board games, mugs, and other knickknacks not good enough for the house.
“Ah ha!” I thought, “So this is an infomercial star’s house.”
Juicers, food processors, electronic redistribution machines (what?) and other as-seen-on-TV gadgets were strewn about, many of them unused. Even still, for how Trudeau made his living, the bounty seemed small, only ten or twenty items. The rest were ordinary: cups and glasses, a box of tea, some games, an enormous George Foreman Grill.
Another room, this one more of a sitting area. It had a smoker’s den feel and contained cigar boxes, statues of dogs, and other manly gestures. A pool table was in the next room. I started to wonder if this really was the last of the Trudeau fortune. It certainly added up to much more than my life savings, but the place was virtually empty. A lamp here, a cigar box there, and more art than anyone could ever want, but except for a few teddy bears, no signs of real life. It was a mansion for a ghost.
The bedrooms were next, and they were sadly empty but for the usual beds, nightstands, and maybe a tea set or Juicy Couture purse. Wandering through the halls, I couldn’t decide what to take. I wanted some sort of souvenir of this charlatan’s home but with no taste for disgusting art, it was tough. Then I saw it: a row of his books. The smoking gun.
“How much are the books?” I asked Linda, one of the attendants.
“Oh... you’re the only one who’s asked. Hang on,” she said.
Linda went to speak to her boss and returned.
“They’re three dollars!” she said, “What a bargain!”
“Mmm,” I said.
With sunglasses and two books in hand, I took one last tour through the house. Some sad teddy bears stared out at me, and a placard with the “Love is gentle, love is kind...” Bible verse hung limply against a wall. I scoured the kitchen one last time and remembered I needed a coffee tumbler. I opened the cupboards, and there one was. It was plastered with pictures of Kevin and his wife, she in a Danish dress. They kissed and stared fondly into each others’ eyes. It immediately made me uncomfortable. I had to have it.
“How much is this tumbler?” I asked Linda.
“Oh, that’s very special. That’s him and his wife. Are you a friend?”
“No,” I said, “But I, uh... I’ve read one of his books.”
“Twenty dollars,” she said.
I got in line, wondering how I would feel about all this after I left. I couldn’t quite parse whether I was helping him, or helping those he exploited, or neither. It was a fun and bizarre experience, standing in the center of justice being served, but also strangely sad, knowing that in the end no one was winning.
I saw Kevin’s friend Ted buy a huge painting for $800.
“Great deal!” said one of his friends.
I approached the cashier with my loot.
“How has the sale been?” I asked.
“Did you ever get to meet Mr. Trudeau?”
“Yes. Kevin, yes.”
“Was he nice?”
“Yes,” he said, “A true gentleman. You know, he’s in jail for those books you’re holding.”
“Yes, I know... Sad.” I said.
“Wait, are you selling the books?” came a booming voice from the entryway. The woman in charge waved her arms in the international sign for stop everything. “You can’t sell those,” she said, “the lawyers said we can’t.”
“Oh, dear,” said the cashier, looking at the books I had already paid for. “Well, we won’t sell any more.”
“Hmph,” said the woman in charge, returning to her guard at the entryway.
“Anyway,” the cashier said, “it’s a disagreement about supplements. The judge copped an attitude, and Kevin copped one back, and that’s why he’s in jail.”
“Sounds complicated,” I said.
“Yeah. I mean, he was no saint, but...”
I drove back to Los Angeles and took out my books, the last ones sold by the Trudeau estate. I flipped through the pages. “YOU CANNOT BELIEVE THE MEDIA” jumped out at me, followed by “WHY ARE THEY HIDING THIS FROM US?” I put the books down and picked up my coffee tumbler, plastered with picture of Mr. and Mrs. Trudeau, embracing each other and kissing. I studied it for a while, turned on my computer, and navigated to Google.
“Do vultures eat vultures?”, I typed.
 [Emphasis mine.] Trudeau, Kevin. The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, Alliance Publishing Group, 2007. pp. 90-91.
 [Emphasis still mine.] ibid.
Are you a human? Do you have access to the internet? Then you may already know about Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist” who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.
But for the uninitiated, Dr. Emoto gained international fame from the film What the Bleep Do We Know?!, which praised his experiments on the cellular structure of water. Maybe you remember this dramatization, in which a science docent describes Emoto’s experiments, and a creepy guy creeps up on Marlee Matlin to explain everything, just in case she’s a complete buffoon.
During his studies, Emoto separated water into one hundred petri dishes and assigned each dish a fate: good or bad. The good water was blessed or praised for being so wonderful (“Oh look at you wonderful little water droplets! One day you shall be a water slide!” I imagine him saying). The bad water was scolded (“May you become that gross grey sludge that builds up under a Zamboni,” he maybe said). Each petri dish was frozen, allegedly under similar conditions. Lo and behold, when the frozen water was viewed under a microscope, the water which had been praised and valued had rearranged itself into beautiful crystalline structures. The “bad” water was as ugly as ice crystals can get (which, to be honest, isn’t that ugly), showing a lack of symmetry and more overall jaggedness. Emoto started to get a little giddy with his findings, trying new methods like taping the words “Adolf Hitler” to a glass of water and seeing what happened (allegedly, the water was very ugly).
He even had a team in Tokyo transmit their thoughts to some water across the world, to California, in a double-blinded study. According to the abstract, “crystals from the treated water were given higher scores for aesthetic appeal than those from the control water.” We are all made up largely of water and, as Emoto explained, that is why this study is so important and the findings are so serious.
Except that they aren’t. As Stanford University professor Emeritus William Tiller (also featured in What the Bleep) pointed out after the film’s release, it is extremely easy to manipulate the crystalline structure of water, especially by adding contaminants or tinkering with the cooling rate of the water. In Dr. Tiller’s words, “In Dr. Emoto’s experiments, [supercooling] was neither controlled nor measured, a necessary requirement to be fulfilled if one wanted to prove that it was the new factor of specific human intention that was causative.” Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.” In one portion of the book, Emoto recalls watching a priest perform incantations into a lake, causing the lake to become more and more clear. And then things get really weird:
The crystals made with water from before the incantation were distorted, and looked like the face of someone in great pain. But the crystals from water taken after the incantation were complete and grand... A few days after this experiment, an incident was reported in the press. The body of a woman was found in the lake, and when I heard about this I remembered the crystals created from the water before the prayer, and remembered how the crystals had looked like a face in agony. Perhaps through the crystals, the spirit of this woman was trying to tell us something. I would like to think that her suffering was alleviated in part by the incantation.
As What the Bleep faded to memory, Emoto and his water evaporated too. But recently, Emoto has made a comeback in the form of a viral video meme of people carrying out yet another Emoto water experiment, now in their own kitchens. The experiment, seen here in its original form, had Emoto pouring water over cooked rice in three different beakers, then labeling one “Thank You!,” one “You’re An Idiot,” and leaving one unlabeled (the control).
Every day for one month, Emoto spoke whatever was on the bottle to the rice inside (since this is about intentionality, it doesn’t matter whether the other rice “overhear”). And after thirty days, what happened? Well, the “Thank You!” rice “began to ferment, giving off a strong, pleasant aroma.” The “You’re An Idiot” rice turned mostly black, and the control rice “began to rot,” turning a disgusting green-blue color. Well, the jig is up when your control rice rots, right? Apparently not. According to Emoto, the “ignored” rice fared the worst because negligence and indifference are the absolute worst things we can do to water, rice…and ourselves. He goes on to explain that “we should converse with children,” a piece of monumental parenting advice that is sure to forever be attributed to this rice experiment. “Indifference,” our narrator tells us, “does the greatest harm.”
Egad! All I’ve ever been doing with my rice is ignoring it! It sits in my pantry, quietly waiting for use, when I should at the very least be calling it an idiot, to stave off some rotting, and at best thanking it for its existence. But did others get the same results? Well, the internet is on it, and people are doing this experiment in their homes and featuring their results on YouTube. Some found that the results roughly replicated Emoto’s, like this couple, who didn’t use a control, and this fellow who didn’t pour water over his rice at all, causing obvious questions to arise. Those who followed the experimental protocols most diligently, and ensured that all their materials were sterile, like this guy, found that all of their sterilized rice samples came out about the same, and that any mold came from bacterial contamination, either from the jars themselves, or from the top of the rice being exposed to air as it was cooling.
So I decided to try it myself. I got out three jars, and labeled two of them “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot,” and left the third blank. I was tempted to think of this third jar as a control, but since Dr. Emoto decided that controls are merely victims of neglect, I thought I would add another type of control: a fourth jar, bearing the name “Michele Bachmann.” Every day, I would read to Jar #4 a quote from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Depending on the rice’s political affiliation, perhaps it would be inspired, or perhaps it would commit suicide.
For the rice, I chose Trader Joe’s organic brown rice (tasty; I recommend). I measured one cup of cooked rice for each jar, and added one cup of water on top of it. Then, for thirty days, I talked to my food.
Everyone looks pretty happy and healthy. No discernible difference between any of the rice family.
The whole family is looking good (check out their new digs, with an antique 1950s bread box behind them). I got these pretty ribbons for “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot.” I thought they deserved them. As you can see, all the kids are looking pretty identical. Today, I read Baby Bachmann this nice quote from her namesake: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out…under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." No mold, no dark spots. I would still eat every one of my children.
The whole damn family is starting to seem a little too happy, you know? Suspiciously happy. It’s a little Brady Bunch in here, how clean-cut these rice kids are. I am going to have to work a little harder at yelling at “You’re An Idiot.” I scrunch up my face and point at him and yell, but he never seems to react.
I’m starting to regret becoming a parent. These kids just sit there like bumps on a log. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? No one’s molding, no one’s turning colors, no one smells. I try to really play favorites, too. “Thank You!” is getting kisses now and gentle caresses, and “You’re An Idiot” is screamed at like Ricky screams at Lucy after she buys a hat. And yet, nothing. Baby Bachmann is getting a workout, too. Today, she heard her namesake’s retelling of her success at the 2012 Republican presidential debates: "I was very proud of the fact that I didn't get anything wrong that I said during the course of the debates." She who shall not be named (the unlabeled rice jar) is being outright ignored like the mistake she is.
Hallelujah! Something is happening! One of my kids is finally sick. Who do you think it is? The negligence victim? The one I yell at all the time? The one who gets ambiguous political quotes seemingly written by a cartoon?
It’s “You’re An Idiot.” He’s finally showing a tiny patch of green mold on one corner of the top of his ricey body. It’s not large, maybe a centimeter across, but it’s there. My little boy has become a man. But, not to be outdone, “Thank You!” is showing a bit of battle scars. A couple of her grains have turned blackish-brown. I think she’s on her way.
God, I hate “You’re An Idiot.” Every time I talk to him, I find myself screaming at him. He’s such an idiot! Anyway, his green mold has about doubled in size, no doubt because of my screaming and not at all because the mold is exposed to air. “Thank You!” is turning a little blackish around the edges of a few of her grains, as is “Michele Bachmann.” My completely ignored child, who we’ll call “Uglo,” is actually faring the best. A single grain has turned a sort of brown-green color, but overall, her body is just as healthy as the day she was born.
Finally, the day has come. For thirty days, I have cheerfully thanked, “Thank You!,” angrily yelled at “You’re An Idiot,” confusingly read Bachmann quotes to “Michele” and completely ignored “Uglo.”
So, what happened?
According to Dr. Emoto, “Uglo” should turn out the worst (rotting, in his experiment). But as you can see, our neglected rice is just fine. Apparently, you can ignore your kids completely and nothing will happen…if we’re still using rice as an experimental stand-ins for kids.
Here’s “You’re An Idiot”:
He should be second-worst (completely black in Emoto’s experiment), due to all that negativity going his way. Well, he was the only one to mold, though the top of the rice in his jar ended up being the most exposed to air of all four samples.
Here’s “Thank You!”:
“Thank You!” should be fermenting, turning yellow and making sweet, delicious smells. As you can see, she is anything but yellow. In fact, she seems to have lost some of her pigment during the experiment, since she and the others started out brown and are now nearly white.
As for fermenting? She’s certainly doing that, but the smell is anything but delicious. Like the others, it’s downright disgusting.
And here’s our old friend, “Michele Bachmann”:
“Michele” should be either disgusting or delicious, depending on her party affiliation and reaction to her namesake’s quotes. But as you can see, she looks nearly identical to “Thank You!” and “Uglo.”
In the end, it appears that Dr. Emoto’s assertion that intention can affect soppy rice doesn’t hold water. I can’t help but wonder if the well-meaning re-creators of this experiment on the internet didn’t help their rice along, exposing the neglected or hated rice to more air, changing the jars around to put them in different temperature or humidity conditions, or performing other tricks in an effort to support a well-intended but ultimately self-evident point: that being ignored or belittled hurts.
When all is said and done, apparently it was only Emoto’s voice that had the power to ruin water. To be fair, Moses had the same problem.
 Emoto’s doctorate is in Alternative Medicine, from the Open University of Mumbai. According to their website, the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.
 Radin, Dean, PhD. “Double-Blind Test of the Effects of Distant Intention on Water Crystal Formation.” Published by EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 2006. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830706003272
 Tiller later explained that he didn’t quite understand what What the Bleep was all about when he gave his interview.
 Tiller, William A. “What the BLEEP Do We Know!?: A Personal Perspective.” Vision in Action, Volume Two, 2004. Pg. 18. http://www.via-visioninaction.org/via-li/journals/What_the_Bleep_Perspectives_Vol2_No3-4.pdf
 Hall, Harriet. “Masaru Emoto’s Wonderful World of Water.” Originally published by Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2007. Retrieved on RedOrbit.com, February 2014. http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1144934/masaru_emotos_wonderful_world_of_water/
 Emoto, Masaru. “The Hidden Messages in Water,” Atria Books, 2004. Pg. 90-91.
 To his credit, he doesn’t appear to have ever marketed Emoto Blessed Water, showing either real sincerity or a lack of entrepreneurial creativity. I would like to suggest the name H2OMG.
 There is some disagreement over whether Emoto used dry or cooked rice, in his various versions of this experiment. The rice appears cooked in the documentary, and so I used cooked rice. Presumably this wouldn’t matter too much, as long as all samples received the same treatment.
 He did still cook his rice, which means it contained some additional water.
 Astute scientific readers will note that my two control jars have slightly different tops to the other two jars. They are right. Although I made certain that my “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot” jars were identical, as they are the most important to compare, I admit there could have been some slight variation in the conditions inside because of the different kinds of tops. However, they were all basically airtight and differed in size only slightly.
Note: This article involves an ongoing investigation. Identifying details are removed or obscured, and names are changed.Image source: Wikimedia Commons
I sat with the older members of a group of twenty-eight people. Twenty were standing. I was the only guest. This was my second meeting with them. They often get together to pray, lay hands on the sick, and communicate with spirits. The spirits don’t talk back, but that doesn’t stop them. Those around me had their hands upturned “to let the energy flow through them.” They chanted rhythmic phrases like “om-rama-om” and “hom-hom-bama-om” energetically but with an eerie peacefulness. No one had told me much about what to expect or what I should do.
“Just observe,” said Keith, the leader. “The first time, we just ask you to soak it in.”
The chanting swirled around me like palpable energy, seeming to fill the air with a dense warmth. Or maybe that was the incense; I’m not sure.
About half an hour passed this way before I joined in. My lips quivered as they met the words around me. It didn’t feel like a conscious decision. I didn’t tell my mouth to start moving. It was coaxed by the moment. The chant existed to connect humanity to the rest of the living world, and it was working. It was connecting these strangers to me.
It wasn’t the first time I had chanted. My first chanting session was in meditation class during college. Yes, meditation class. I also took a class called “Dreams and Interpretations,” in which my not-so-psychic instructor guessed that my in-the-closet male best friend and I were in love. That instructor used chants to help us clear our minds and envision the spiritual world around us. The chants usually lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes—nothing like the two hour session I was in for tonight. But this was a new group, and I was investigating it alone. In a room full of believers, I was the only one who didn’t yet buy what they were selling. The woman next to me leaned in and whispered.
“Is this your first time here? I’m Ethel.”
“Yes, hi, I’m Carrie.”
“Turn your hands further up, like this,” she said, holding her hands up to her chest, out-turned in the universal symbol for halt. “That will help the energy flow better.”
I did. I brought my hands closer to my chest, draining the blood out of them. I closed my eyes and let the chants flow through me, trying not to judge them or think about them but just to experience what this room full of believers was experiencing. I stayed that way for about half an hour, listening to the chants and incantations. They were full of energy, nothing like the dull repetitive prayers of a middle-America church service.
And then something unexpected happened.
At first, it was just a lightheadedness. Then I felt like I was out of my body, floating above it. I couldn’t tell if my hands were near my face or far, far away. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were open or closed. I heard sounds no one else appeared to hear and saw vague, distant images: a pink diamond, a rooster with a pyramid for legs, an elderly woman in a revealing gown. At one point I snapped to attention and found that my upper body had been rhythmically swaying in a semi-circle. I wasn’t awake, and I wasn’t asleep. I was in a trance.
For over half an hour, I stayed in this state between wake and slumber. It felt much like the few moments before drifting into sleep except that it never progressed to actual sleep, nor threatened to. It was like being in a place where my rational mind could not reach me, and even thinking about it didn’t snap me out of it.
When the chanting stopped, my body jerked to attention, and my eyes flew open. I was back in the room with everyone else. Those who were standing shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. They had been holding their hands up by their chests for over an hour and were getting tired. When we broke for a short intermission, I stood up slowly, not sure my body would follow me. I joined the other attendees at the water cooler where everyone quaffed several cups. The chanting had given them all dry mouth.
“You’re new here,” said a young woman in an orange, silky robe.
“Yes,” I said, “I’m Carrie.”
“Ahh!” she said, looking around her knowingly. Then she slipped back into the service. I stood alone with my paper cup, wondering if she had heard of me before, and if so, from whom. Maybe my energy shot over to her while it swirled around in warm waves above my head? Or maybe Keith had mentioned me. Both seemed plausible at the moment.
We returned to the worship space, ready to chant. I found my seat where I could watch the robed devotees stand in their formation: four rows of chanters, all confidently standing in their prearranged foot positions and staring straight ahead, almost as if saluting a flag or being called to attention by a drill sergeant. Quickly, the group fell back into the pattern: chanting, holding their palms toward the center of the room, monotonously calling out the mantras that would connect them to our creator, our earth, and to the aliens with whom we share our universe.
I wanted to leave my body. I couldn’t wait to see that rooster again. My heartbeat sped up, and the back of my hands tingled with excitement for the trance. If I could do this at will, I would never be bored again! Public lectures, DMV appointments, long business meetings—as long as no one ever looked at me, I would be golden. Saved through the power of euphoric trance.
But it never came. The trance didn’t return, possibly because I was so excited to have it back. It was like an honored guest at a party who didn’t want to be there at all. The college freshman invited to their older relatives’ dinner party, asked incessantly about their plans for the future. That trance wanted nothing to do with me anymore.
For the rest of the service, I listened to the chanting and considered what I might have been experienced earlier. It certainly felt a lot like falling asleep—that process of drifting into unconsciousness, able to snap to at any moment. Psychologists call this hypnagogia, and it is the state in which some people experience lucid dreaming and even disturbing experiences like Old Hag Syndrome.
After the service, I told Ethel about my experience.
“It felt like a trance,” I said. “I felt like I left my body and couldn’t feel where my hands were. My upper body started circling from my waist, and I had no control over it. It was euphoric. Do you think that was a trance?”
She looked at me with a sympathetic cock of her head, politely smiling with the corner of her mouth.
“Maybe it was a mini-trance,” she said, “but I think you might be overthinking it.”
Then she hung up her robe and left.
A popular gambit in cryptozoology is to say that a cryptid is a real animal that was presumed long extinct but has lived on undetected. Here is why that sounds sciencey, but is bad reasoning.
“From what I have heard of the animal, it seems to me that it can only be some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurus. As the stories come from so many different sources, and all tend to substantiate each other, I am almost convinced that some such reptile must still be in existence. At great expense, therefore, I sent out an expedition to find the monster, but unfortunately they were compelled to return home without having proved anything, either one way or the other. [...] Notwithstanding this failure, I have not relinquished the hope of being able to present science with indisputable evidence of the existence of the monster.”
From Beasts and Men: Being Carl Hagenbeck's Experiences for Half a Century Among Wild Animals, 1912. An abridged translation by H.S.R. Elliot and A.G. Thacker, p 96-7.
The book From Beasts and Men, containing the excerpt above about a report of a living dinosaur, was published the same year as Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Hagenbeck, a zookeeper and exotic animal merchant, speculated that there existed a real “lost world” in the unexplored areas of Africa. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Magin, 2010) The idea that a lone survivor or a population of living fossils is out there to be found by courageous explorers is accepted by many of today’s self-styled cryptozoologists (those who research ethno-known, but not scientifically verified animals). Buoyed by the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938, a rare, lobe-finned fish that was presumed extinct for sixty-six million years, these specialty researchers sustain their wishful thinking that more fabulous finds are out there, even dinosaurs and other iconic prehistoric beasts.
The most famous cryptid claimed to be a survivor of ages long past is the Loch Ness Monster. One of the most popular explanations you will hear proposed for Nessie in the media is that it is a plesiosaur, a marine reptile that disappeared from the fossil record sixty-six million years ago with other large fauna at the same time as pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and dinosaurs (land reptiles) went extinct. There are many and various good reasons to conclude Nessie is NOT a plesiosaur (which is best left to professionals to explain). Besides the fact that the creature has not been shown to be an actual mystery, the plesiosaur hypothesis, specifically, is ridiculous and should be abandoned, as should other suggestions of prehistoric survivors. I’ll explain why this idea should be killed with fire, and in the process, I’ll tell you about the dozens of other extinct animals said to still be seen alive in modern times. Thanks A.C. Doyle!The Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm (PSP)
Doyle was inspired by the wilds of South America to create his prehistoric plateau populated by dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterodactyls and ape-men in The Lost World. Many works of literature and film also capitalized on this popular theme. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013; Coleman, 2007) Fiction is a powerful influence on culture just as culture influences fiction. Paleontological discoveries were all the rage in the late nineteenth century as skeletal remains were extracted by the tons from the American West, described, classified and mounted in museums. The public was astounded at the size and strangeness of these new, real monsters. It did not seem implausible that animals of the distant past could yet survive in the unexplored places of the world (Magin, 2010) especially if you were unfamiliar with the immensity of geologic time. This is exactly when the idea of still living dinosaurs emerged.
In the early days of the intrepid natural explorer to the Dark Continent, there had been rumors of monstrous inhabitants known from strange track ways. It is commonly noted that Central Africa was a particularly fine candidate for a “lost world” since it has not changed much climatologically or geologically. But, indeed it HAS. That parts of the world remain untouched by natural changes is a myth.
The stories about what created the tracks were made up whole cloth by natives or from the explorers themselves. The term “dinosaur” to describe the monsters was tacked on in the twentieth century as the knowledge about the past existence of real monsters spread. (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) One classic “living dinosaur” legend is that of Mokèlé-mbèmbé—the “half elephant, half dragon” monster of the Congo. According to the chapter on Mokèlé-mbèmbé in the cryptozoology chronicle, Abominable Science (Loxton and Prothero, 2013), Carl Hagenbeck initiated this legend as noted in my opening quotation. His “credible” reports were from Rhodesia (now defined as Zambia and Zimbabwe). But the modern Mokèlé-mbèmbé legend is from Lake Tele in the Congo basin, some 1200 miles away. Did it migrate? Well, sort of. African dinosaur lore appears to have been distilled from several creative stories from different locations. Early in the cultural history of dinosaurs, brontosaurs (now officially named Apatosaurus) were seen as swamp-dwelling animals. Similar dinosaur-like cryptids such as the Nsanga and Chipekwe were said to be so gigantic they frightened elephants. There were tales of the plate-backed Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu creature said to resemble a stegosaur. The Emela Ntouka and the Ngoubou were described with a frilled head and horns like ceratopsian dinosaurs. What ELSE could they be except dinosaurs? It sounds scientifically conservative to extrapolate from animals that we know once existed. Instead, it's actually lazy thinking; there is no evidence to support such speculation when we have better evidence that there are no longer living populations of these animals. Even our evidence about dinosaur habitat has evolved. They are no longer assumed to be tropical swamp dwellers. The modern evidence clashes with these legends created under the old pop-culture ideas of dinosaurs.
Paleozoologist Dr. Darren Naish regularly uses the term “Prehistoric Survivor Paradigm” (PSP) to address this cryptozoological habit of resurrecting extinct animals as potential explanations for cryptids. In a blog post from 2006 for the popular science blog Tetrapod Zoology, he talks about how cryptozoology writers are still endorsing this idea and why it was actually an unscientific conclusion to make. To suggest that these mystery animals were not only real (with their descriptions taken at face value, a dangerous assumption to make), but surviving descendants of an extinct population was unjustifiable speculation. As a corollary, one must also conclude that the fossil record is unreliable. Though it IS imperfect, he notes, it's really not as bad as people think it is (Naish, 2003), especially for marine animals. Naish picks apart the PSP in his most recent book on speculative zoology, The Cryptozoologicon (Conway, et al. 2013), calling it a “boring” explanation used just because a carcass or description of a cryptid somewhat resembles what we think the extinct animals would look like today. Moreover, some cryptozoology researchers not only assume some cryptids are prehistoric survivors but they speculate on how further evolution occurred to the present time—a marine animal adapts to fresh water, it might have grown spines, perhaps ancient whale lineages became more serpent-like (and account for sea serpent sightings), etc. Such speculation is fun and entertaining, but to suggest they are genuine is ludicrous to those who actually study the fossils of those animals.
Interestingly, many who subscribe to the paradigm that extinct animals still survive have strong creationist tendencies. They assume, irrationally, that by finding a living dinosaur, evolution will somehow be disproven. They often won't hide their anti-evolution aims (Loxton and Prothero, 2013) since wealthy Christian backers will fund those expensive expeditions to the Congo to find proof of living fossils. These expeditions are not headed by zoologists, but by men who will spread God’s word to the natives while on the track of monsters. The media, unaware of the excursive, non-zoological agenda of these trips, will treat the explorers the same as a bona fide biologist that they almost never are. In 2012, a group of American kids with no scientific training attempted to raise money for a Congo trip to find the dinosaurs and giant spiders they heard about in questionable legends. They succeeded with funding but were woefully ill equipped and ill prepared for the adventure, which was scuttled upon arrival. The interesting observation is all they had needed to raise the funds was an exciting story and a boatload of hope (or perhaps faith). They seemed to be dismissive (or ignorant) of the more likely explanation for these incredible monster stories from Africa—that of manufactured myths to entertain the tourists. The natives told past visitors incredible tales that got positive reactions. It is clear that researchers showed illustrations of dinosaurs that elicited confirmation of what they wanted to hear. The legend grew but evidence was lacking.The Implausible Plesiosaur
Plesiosauria is an order of astounding aquatic reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic era from 205 to 65 million years ago, contemporaneous with dinosaurs. Though there are more than a hundred named species, Plesiosaurus is the genus/species1 most familiar to non-scientists, having a barrel-like body and a long neck ending in a small head full of teeth. Front and rear flippers allowed it to “fly” through the water. It does not appear to have been capable of significant land locomotion but that does not stop speculation a modern plesiosaur version could crawl around the shore and scare the local inhabitants.
Besides being the most exciting explanation proposed for Nessie, a relict plesiosaur is also the favored explanation for the cadborosaurus and other lake and near-shore monster sightings. A body, called the Naden Harbour carcass, was found in the stomach of a whale in 1937 on the Canadian Pacific coast. It had a plesiosaur-like outline—long neck, small head. Another “possible” plesiosaur cited by proponents of the PSP is that of the stinking carcass hauled up by the fishing crew of the ship Zuiyo Maru near New Zealand in 1977. In both cases the carcass was in an advanced state of decomposition but there is no good evidence to conclude each was anything other than the remains of a known animal. They are often referred to as possible modern plesiosaurs.
One tale from the early twentieth century illustrates the typical cryptozoological characteristic of unreliable and downright contradictory descriptions of mysterious cryptids. In 1922, the New York Times ran a story about a professor who received two reports of a plesiosaur still alive in a lake in the Patagonian Andes. The reports sent to Clementi Onelli ranged from a “black shadow” swimming away to that of an animal with a head like a horse and long neck held above the water surface. Within weeks following the media reports, the animal was quite oddly hypothesized to be a glyptodon (an extinct giant armadillo-relative) or a megatherium (giant ground sloth, also extinct). How one animal managed to encompass all these diverse forms is a wondrous achievement! Expeditions to the area were failures (perhaps because they didn't know what they were supposed to find). (Arment, 2004)
Cryptozoologists love the story of the coelacanth fish that supposedly went AWOL in the fossil record for sixty-six million years.2 The deep sea, they knowingly state, can conceal many mysteries including small populations of prehistoric survivors. Dr. Naish, however, points out several reasons why the coelacanth hide and find is not comparable to plesiosaur fossils. Although still often touted in non-professional crypto-books that coelacanth fossils are unknown past the K-Pg extinction2 event, this appears to be false. (Naish, 2010) Paleogene fossil remains of coelacanths were poor and easily overlooked by paleontologists. It’s possible that, as is the case with many uncatalogued fossils, there are additional samples sitting unidentified in museum archives.
Large aquatic vertebrates have generally excellent fossil records. (Naish, 2003) Animals such as plesiosaurids, ichthyosaurids, mosasaurids, and primitive whales are all groups that were “theorized back to life” by imaginative cryptid writers. (Conway, et al. 2013) The oceans (and even some deep lakes, like Loch Ness, and large rivers) are also thought by a few optimists to still hide zeuglodonts (ancient whales), thalattosuchians (long-snouted crocs resembling sea serpents), pliosaurs (short-necked plesiosaurs), large armored fish called placodonts, giant sea scorpions (eurypterids) and archelon, the four-meter long sea turtle we last find at the K-Pg extinction boundary. The idea of an ancient giant shark still alive was such a fantastic idea that Megalodon got his own TV special on Animal Planet in 2013 complete with faked footage to suggest that a toothy monstrous menace still roamed the sea. The fake documentary influenced the opinion of many viewers who now entertain the belief that it's still out there. If any of these animals indeed survived past their presumed extinction, we should find representative fossils. We don't. Absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.
As much as I would LOVE to believe plesiosaurs are still around, Nessie is not a plesiosaur or any other prehistoric survivor. No known group of vertebrates has been found alive after disappearing completely from the fossil record some sixty-six million years ago (Naish, 2003). Therefore, paleontologists can be confident that these sea-faring reptiles are indeed extinct.Living Pterosaurs
It is possible to hide in the ocean for a long time but you certainly will have difficulty remaining secretive if you are a giant flying critter. Yet, there are many reports of people observing enormous flying creatures they describe as “prehistoric-looking.” There are stories of huge condor-type birds, with wingspans comparable to a plane, in parts of Pennsylvania, Alaska, and Illinois. (Hall, 2004) Some speculate these birds were Teratorns that went extinct in the Pleistocene era. A less bird-like Thunderbird is known from the American West. People claim to see airborne animals that resemble pterosaurs.3 They are described as huge, dragon-like, winged creatures, having leathery skin instead of feathers and sometimes a tooth-filled beak and a head crest. Pterosaurs lived and died along with dinosaurs. The attained astonishing diversity and monstrous size but left no descendants.
A Fortean Times piece cites a story from 1873 where a steamship crew off Micronesia caught a black, furry, “savage” animal resembling “the pterodactyl of the antidiluvian ages.” Actually, it sounds more like a large fruit bat. But they didn't recognize it. (Magin, 2010) This story is remarkably similar to the encounter reported by (crypto)zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson of the animal called the Olitiau in the southern Cameroon that attacked his crew. He described it as having “dracula” wings. Again, it most likely was a fruit bat but speculation continues that it was a pterosaur because that makes for a really neat story.
The legendary kongamato of Zambia and the Congo is described as possibly an existing rhamphorynchoid pterosaur—having a long thin tail ending in a diamond shaped rudder. Acrobatic flying lizards that glow with bioluminescence as they flit about the rivers in Papua New Guinea are known as ropen. Popular cryptid writers describe the ropen as being a potential living pterosaur. However, some birds bear a remarkable similarity to rhamphorynchoids in flight. Long legs trail behind looking like thin tail with a rudder. Frigate birds have angular wings and a long tail that cause them to be mistaken for pterosaurs in flight. Revealingly, ornithologists and even casual bird watchers have not cataloged sightings of pterosaurs. Living pterosaurs most certainly no longer patrol our skies.Sources: left, right Still Roaming the Land
Tales of prehistoric survivors come from all continents and there are almost too many names and varieties to keep track of. (Eberhart, 2002) Besides the dinosaurs from Africa, here is a little taste of the range of prehistoric animals still reported alive.
Megalania, fifteen- to twenty-foot long lizards in Australia and New Guinea that died out 20,000 years ago, is speculated to account for sightings of the Burrunjor.
Thylacoleo was a marsupial lion of Australia that is suspected to be behind reports of the “Queensland Tiger” or yarri. It has been suggested, without proper evidence, that this animal is a mainland version of the extinct Tasmanian tiger (thylacine).
Also in Australia, a giant wombat, possibly the legendary Bunyip, is connected to diprotodonts, extinct for 7,000 years.
In South America, rather unreliable reports surfaced of sightings of saber-toothed cats. And the fearsome Mapinguari is reported in Brazil and Bolivia as a giant ground sloth or giant anteater last known from the Pleistocene.
The waheela, a bear-dog creature resembling an extinct amphicyonid, is claimed to still exist even though the fossil record shows it died out five million years ago in North America. Imaginative authors speculate that waheelas account for reports of dogmen or modern werewolves in the northern United States.
Reports of the Nandi bear, or Ngoloko, a cryptid out of Africa has been hypothesized to be an Atlas bear, a giant baboon, a short-faced hyena, or a chalicothere (herbivore that lived 40–3.5 million years ago) most due to its characteristically short rear legs and longer front legs.
Of course, we can't forget the species of prehistoric primates still said to roam the earth. A common proposed explanation from Bigfoot believers is that today’s North American Sasquatch is a relict Gigantopithecus (which paleontologists know only from teeth and jaw parts). The Asian versions of wild men have been speculated to be hominids that we assumed were long gone, perhaps even Neanderthals. But use of modern DNA and measuring techniques squash that idea; samples of supposed modern remains or descendants of these creatures have been tested and come back as modern human.
There are several mentions of Ice Age animals still alive. Once again, 12,000 years may not seem that long, but it really is for not finding living specimens of really large and obvious mammals. In February of 2012, The Sun (UK) tabloid published a photo and video (on the web site) declared to be evidence of a wooly mammoth traversing a river in Russia. It was blurry, the features indistinguishable, and the source dubious—a known hoaxer who runs a weird news website. Still, a real live mammoth in Siberia seemed plausible to many. Mammoths survived in dwarf form on Wrangel Island of the coast of Alaska for 10,000 years after they disappeared from the American mainland. Could a small population have continued on living in the remote arctic wilderness?
Unfortunately, no. In short order, the Siberian mammoth video was discovered to be a computer graphics hoax—film of a real river in Russia with a fake mammoth added in.
Once again, the hopeful evidence disintegrates.
There is a great desire, even by non-cryptozoologists, to discover a lost world full of surprises. The eyewitness accounts, legends, creative interpretation of traditional art, and the human propensity to convert fantasy into reality is not enough to support the idea that long-extinct prehistoric animals are still with us. Sure, there is a chance we might discover another Lazarus taxon4, but it won’t be the fanciful flying dragons, the elephant killer, or massive toothy sea monster. Still, when people really want to believe it, they sometimes actually see it. Therefore, these stories, for they are nothing greater than that, are passed along in pop culture. Some believe they are true. We can continue to study and admire these prehistoric animals as evolutionary treasures and as characters in science fiction, but we cannot resurrect them with just wishful thinking and dubious claims.References
Arment, C. (ed.) (2004) “The Patagonian ‘Plesiosaur’ Expedition of 1922.” North American Biofortean Review 6(2) No. 15, pp. 3-11.
Coleman, L. (2007) “Prehistoric Cryptofiction.” Cryptomundo blog.
Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M., and Naish, D. (2013) The Cryptozoologicon Volume 1.
Eberhart, G. (2002) Mysterious Creatures.
Hall, M.A. (2004) Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds
Jeffreys, M.D.W. (1944) African Pterodactyls. Journal of the Royal African Society (pp. 72-74). Reprinted at http://www.strangeark.com/reprints/ptero.html.
Loxton, D and Prothero, D. (2013) Abominable Science.
Magin, U. (2010) “Living Pterodactyls”. Fortean Times No. 267 October 2010.
Naish, D. (2003) “On Plesiosaurs, Basilosaurs, and Problems with Reconstructions.” North American Biofortean Review 5(3) No. 12.
Naish, D. (2006) “On those pesky prehistoric survivors: A call to arms.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.
Naish, D. (2010) “A sea monster poster for the 9th European Symposium of Cryptozoology.” Tetrapod Zoology blog.
Shuker, K.P.N. (1995) In Search of Prehistoric Survivors.
Smith, D.G. and Mangiocopra G. (2004) “An 1900’s Prehistoric Amazon Monster – An Explorers Encounter, Cryptofiction or a Combination of Both.” North American Biofortean Review 6(1) No. 14, p 19-27.Footnotes
1. There is currently only one species listed in the genus Plesiosaurus, P. dolichodeirus.
2. The K-Pg, Cretaceous-Paleogene, extinction occurred sixty-six million years ago. Previously called the K-T extinction (T for Tertiary), this is the most popularly known giant extinction event since it killed off all non-avian dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and pterosaurs as well as many other animal groups, and created new environmental niches for small mammals and birds to exploit. The current coup d’etat for the mass death was a large meteor impact in the Yucatan that affected environmental conditions worldwide.
3. Commonly but incorrectly called “pterodactyls” which are one suborder of pterosaurs, the more proper term refers to the entire range of pterosaurs including rhamphorynchoids.
4. Known as “Lazarus taxon,” many documented findings exist of animals that appeared to be extinct but were later found alive. The record seems to be monoplacophores, mollusks that were known from fossils 380 million years ago but were discovered alive in Costa Rica in 1952.
“Are you into Bigfoot stuff?”
The man’s question is genuine, and not directed at me but at a man standing next to me. I’m confused, because they are standing on either side of a table covered in drawings of Bigfoot, surrounded by people wearing Bigfoot T-shirts and hats that read “Gone Squatchin’,” and they are at a Bigfoot convention.
“You bet,” the other man enthusiastically replied.
Thank god, I think. If he were not into Bigfoot stuff, he was about to have a truly lousy day.
A friend and I had arrived at the Chautauqua Lake Bigfoot Expo ready for a full day of exciting Bigfoot action. The schedule ran from noon until 6:15pm and was packed with talks like, “Bigfoot Eyeshine—What Is It?” and “What Would Sasquatch Do?” which I imagined as a lecture on top-down morality and ethics as espoused by a shy, possibly fictional woodland creature.
We showed up early to get good seats for the first lecture (“Sasquatch in Virginia” by Billy Willard of Sasquatch Watch. Yes, the Billy Willard of Sasquatch Watch), but first we had to pick up our tickets, and then the ticket seller stamped our hands. I looked at my stamp.
“For deposit only,” I read out loud, “We Wan Chu Cattages.” I looked at the woman behind the counter and asked, “Cattages?”
In lieu of explanation, she handed us two slips of paper with our seat assignments on them.
We walked into the large, mostly empty conference hall and attempted to figure out the seating arrangements. There were dozens of large, round tables and some had numbers on them, but they didn’t seem to correlate to the numbers on our slips. After wandering around for a few minutes, a very helpful conference worker offered to show us to our seats. After wandering the room for a few more minutes, it became clear that she also didn’t understand the seating arrangements.
I made a joke about our seats being harder to find than Bigfoot. She smiled politely and directed us toward an empty table near the back.
The crowd was pretty much what I expected of a Bigfoot convention, except for the fact that that Bigfoot wasn’t there. Most of the audience was made up of adults, with a few families with children sprinkled in. There was a lot of flannel and a bit of camo.
The talks began late, giving us time to check out the vendors, which were mostly artists specializing in the subject of Bigfoot. My favorite was a man who painted lovely Bob Ross–esque landscapes, each with a Bigfoot hidden somewhere in the foliage.
Finally, the presentations started. All conferences are boring by nature, regardless of their topic, but this one had a few highlights, as when Billy Willard pointed out that some people report disorientation and sickness when in the presence of Bigfoot, meaning that Bigfoot most likely produces some kind of infrasound.
“Do you think Bigfoot’s an interdimensional creature?” asked an audience member during Q&A. That question is probably the best I’ve ever heard at a conference—and I’ve been to a lot of conferences.
“No,” Willard replied, “because I’m a skeptical person.”
The presentations dealing with Bigfoot investigations were, for the most part, a series of descriptions of near-misses. Food was set out, and in the morning a bite had been taken off of it but no one had thought to set up a camera, so it may well have been a deer that rudely ate the food obviously meant for Bigfoot. Cameras that were set up to catch Bigfoot just showed an endless supply of deer, foxes, raccoons, cats, squirrels, and owls, but nary a primate to be seen. And even when footage did supposedly show Bigfoot, even the Bigfoot expo crowd was a bit skeptical.Bob Gimlin autographed a photo to Joe Nickell:
"To Joe Nickell
You are wrong
Bob Gimlin, of the famous “Patterson-Gimlin” Bigfoot footage, was the keynote speaker, and the audience was refreshingly irreverent. One of the first questions was a man who wanted to know why Gimlin headed home after capturing a few seconds of shaky footage instead of chasing after the Bigfoot. Gimlin hemmed and hawed and shuffled his feet and didn’t really answer the question.
Another audience member pointed out that Gimlin said he viewed the video footage the day after he filmed it. “How did you get it processed so quickly?”
Gimlin said he has no idea, but a friend had connections in the film processing industry. The audience member looked disappointed.
The audience’s skepticism raised my spirits a bit, but Gimlin dashed them when talking about Bob Heironimus, the man who claims he was in the gorilla suit. Gimlin expressed a desire to go to Heironimus’s house “and give him a cowboy butt-kicking,” to which the audience responded with enthusiastic applause. It felt wrong and out of place in the midst of a conference where Bigfoot was overwhelmingly described as a gentle giant. Bigfoot would never kick anyone’s butt.
The other highlight of the day was Steve Kulls’s talk, “What Would Bigfoot Do?” which turned out to be a study of Bigfoot’s behaviors and not necessarily his ethical concerns. It was fascinating to hear a detailed analysis of the behavior of a creature that has never been proven to exist. Cryptozoologists often compare Bigfoot to real animals that actual scientists discover living in the wild, like the olinguito, the first carnivorous mammal species discovered in the Americas in the past thirty years. But, you’d have been hard pressed to find a biologist giving an overview of the olinguito’s specific behaviors and personality prior to it actually being discovered.
Some of Bigfoot’s behaviors described by Kulls included crossing roads, nodding, staring at women hanging laundry, staring at children, aggression, screaming, throwing rocks and logs at people for entertainment, and knocking on wood (possibly for luck).
Other talks added a few more behaviors to the list, like Bigfoot’s preference for apples and the fact that he may be bioluminescent.
In terms of appearance, I learned that Bigfoot is red, white, black, brown, or silver and he is anywhere from five to ten feet tall. Also, he smells like fish or like nothing, and he sounds like a monkey chattering, a baby squealing, a man groaning, or a lion roaring.
One might suspect that Bigfoot can sound, smell, and look like anything at all, which makes him surprisingly easy to find but surprisingly difficult to prove you’ve found.
After listening carefully to all the talks and considering their evidence, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that there probably isn’t a Bigfoot, but looking for him sounds like a lot of fun, anyway. Searching for Bigfoot requires trekking into the wilderness to camp and stalk and hang out with your friends and use cool technology like night-vision goggles and thermal-imaging cameras. It’s all the fun of hunting without the downer of killing something at the end.
It’s the perfect hobby, provided you’re not overly concerned with small details like actually catching the thing you’re looking for. In that case, you might want to try bird-watching.
Neuroscience and its new brain imaging tools are great achievements of modern science. But they are vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs.
You’ve seen the headlines: This is your brain on love. Or God. Or envy. Or happiness. And they’re reliably accompanied by articles boasting pictures of color-drenched brains—scans capturing Buddhist monks meditating, addicts craving cocaine, and college sophomores choosing Coke over Pepsi. The media—and even some neuroscientists, it seems—love to invoke the neural foundations of human behavior to explain everything from the Bernie Madoff financial fiasco to our slavish devotion to our iPhones, the sexual indiscretions of politicians, conservatives’ dismissal of global warming, and even an obsession with self-tanning.
Brains are big on campus, too. Take a map of any major university, and you can trace the march of neuroscience from research labs and medical centers into schools of law and business and departments of economics and philosophy. In recent years, neuroscience has merged with a host of other disciplines, spawning such new areas of study as neurolaw, neuroeconomics, neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, and neurofinance. Add to this the birth of neuroaesthetics, neurohistory, neuroliterature, neuromusicology, neuropolitics, and neurotheology. The brain has even wandered into such unlikely redoubts as English departments, where professors debate whether scanning subjects’ brains as they read passages from Jane Austen novels represents (a) a fertile inquiry into the power of literature or (b) a desperate attempt to inject novelty into a field that has exhausted its romance with psychoanalysis and postmodernism.
Clearly, brains are hot. Once the largely exclusive province of neuroscientists and neurologists, the brain has now entered the popular mainstream. As a newly minted cultural artifact, the brain is portrayed in paintings, sculptures, and tapestries and put on display in museums and galleries. One science pundit noted, “If Warhol were around today, he’d have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.”
The prospect of solving the deepest riddle humanity has ever contemplated—itself—by studying the brain has captivated scholars and scientists for centuries. But never before has the brain so vigorously engaged the public imagination. The prime impetus behind this enthusiasm is a form of brain imaging called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an instrument that came of age a mere two decades ago, which measures brain activity and converts it into the now-iconic vibrant images one sees in the science pages of the daily newspaper.
As a tool for exploring the biology of the mind, neuroimaging has given brain science a strong cultural presence. As one scientist remarked, brain images are now “replacing Bohr’s planetary atom as the symbol of science.” With its implied promise of decoding the brain, it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will.
The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet.
Author Tom Wolfe was characteristically prescient when he wrote of fMRI in 1996, just a few years after its introduction, “Anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty-first century dawn will want to keep an eye on it.” Now we can’t look away.
Why the fixation? First, of course, there is the very subject of the scans: the brain itself. More complex than any structure in the known cosmos, the brain is a masterwork of nature endowed with cognitive powers that far outstrip the capacity of any silicon machine built to emulate it. Containing roughly eighty billion brain cells, or neurons, each of which communicates with thousands of other neurons, the three-pound universe cradled between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way. How this enormous neural edifice gives rise to subjective feelings is one of the greatest mysteries of science and philosophy.
Now combine this mystique with the simple fact that pictures—in this case, brain scans—are powerful. Of all our senses, vision is the most developed. There are good evolutionary reasons for this arrangement: The major threats to our ancestors were apprehended visually; so were their sources of food. Plausibly, the survival advantage of vision gave rise to our reflexive bias for believing that the world is as we perceive it to be, an error that psychologists and philosophers call “naive realism.” This misplaced faith in the trustworthiness of our perceptions is the wellspring of two of history’s most famously misguided theories: that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the Earth. For thousands of years, people trusted their raw impressions of the heavens. Yet, as Galileo understood all too well, our eyes can deceive us. He wrote in his Dialogues of 1632 that the Copernican model of the heliocentric universe commits a “rape upon the senses”—it violates everything our eyes tell us.
Brain scan images are not what they seem either—or at least not how the media often depict them. They are not photographs of the brain in action in real time. Scientists can’t just look “in” the brain and see what it does. Those beautiful color-dappled images are actually representations of particular areas in the brain that are working the hardest—as measured by increased oxygen consumption—when a subject performs a task such as reading a passage or reacting to stimuli, such as pictures of faces. The powerful computer located within the scanning machine transforms changes in oxygen levels into the familiar candy-colored splotches indicating the brain regions that become especially active during the subject’s performance. Despite well-informed inferences, the greatest challenge of imaging is that it is very difficult for scientists to look at a fiery spot on a brain scan and conclude with certainty what is going on in the mind of the person.
Neuroimaging is a young science, barely out of its infancy, really. In such a fledgling enterprise, the half-life of facts can be especially brief. To regard research findings as settled wisdom is folly, especially when they emanate from a technology whose implications are still poorly understood. As any good scientist knows, there will always be questions to hone, theories to refine, and techniques to perfect. Nonetheless, scientific humility can readily give way to exuberance. When it does, the media often seem to have a ringside seat at the spectacle.
Several years ago, as the 2008 presidential election season was gearing up, a team of neuroscientists from UCLA sought to solve the riddle of the undecided, or swing, voter. They scanned the brains of swing voters as they reacted to photos and video footage of the candidates. The researchers translated the resultant brain activity into the voters’ unspoken attitudes and, together with three political consultants from a Washington, D.C.–based firm called FKF Applied Research, presented their findings in the New York Times in an op-ed titled “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” There, readers could view scans dotted with tangerine and neon-yellow hot spots indicating regions that “lit up” when the subjects were exposed to images of Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, and other candidates. Revealed in these activity patterns, the authors claimed, were “some voter impressions on which this election may well turn.” Among those impressions was that two candidates had utterly failed to “engage” with swing voters. Who were these unpopular politicians? John McCain and Barack Obama, the two eventual nominees for president.
Another much-circulated study, published in 2008, “The Neural Correlates of Hate” came from neuroscientists at University College London. The researchers asked subjects to bring in photos of people they hated—generally ex-lovers, work rivals, or reviled politicians—as well as people about whom subjects felt neutrally. By comparing their responses—that is, patterns of brain activation elicited by the hated face—with their reaction to the neutral photos, the team claimed to identify the neurological correlates of intense hatred. Not surprisingly, much of the media coverage attracted by the study flew under the headline: “‘Hate Circuit’ Found in Brain.”
One of the researchers, Semir Zeki, told the press that brain scans could one day be used in court—for example, to assess whether a murder suspect felt a strong hatred toward the victim. Not so fast. True, these data do reveal that certain parts of the brain become more active when people look at images of people they hate and presumably feel contempt for. The problem is that the illuminated areas on the scan are activated by many other emotions, not just hate. There is no newly discovered collection of brain regions that are wired together in such a way that they comprise the identifiable neural counterpart of hatred.
University press offices, too, are notorious for touting sensational details in their media-friendly releases: Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion Center Found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love Found in the Brain!”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. To repeat: It’s all too easy for the nonexpert to lose sight of the fact that fMRI and other brain-imaging techniques do not literally read thoughts or feelings. By obtaining measures of brain oxygen levels, they show which regions of the brain are more active when a person is thinking, feeling, or, say, reading or calculating. But it is a rather daring leap to go from these patterns to drawing confident inferences about how people feel about political candidates or paying taxes, or what they experience in the throes of love.
Pop neuroscience makes an easy target, we know. Yet we invoke it because these studies garner a disproportionate amount of media coverage and shape public perception of what brain imaging can tell us. Skilled science journalists cringe when they read accounts claiming that scans can capture the mind itself in action. Serious science writers take pains to describe quality neuroscience research accurately. Indeed, an eddy of discontent is already forming. “Neuromania,” “neurohubris,” and “neurohype”—“neurobollocks,” if you’re a Brit—are just some of the labels that have been brandished, sometimes by frustrated neuroscientists themselves. But in a world where university press releases elbow one another for media attention, it’s often the study with a buzzy storyline (“Men See Bikini-Clad Women as Objects, Psychologists Say”) that gets picked up and dumbed down.
The problem with such mindless neuroscience is not neuroscience itself. The field is one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science. Its instruments are remarkable. The goal of brain imaging, which is merely one of its tools, is enormously important and fascinating: to bridge the explanatory gap between the intangible mind and the corporeal brain. But that relationship is extremely complex and incompletely understood. Therefore, it is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants—fits of “premature extrapolation,” as British neuroskeptic Steven Poole calls them. When it comes to brain scans, seeing may be believing, but it isn’t necessarily understanding.
Some of the misapplications of neuroscience are amusing and essentially harmless. Take, for instance, the new trend of neuromanagement books such as Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders, which advises nervous CEOs “to be aware that anxiety centers in the brain connect to thinking centers, including the PFC [prefrontal cortex] and ACC [anterior cingulate cortex].” The fad has, perhaps not surprisingly, infiltrated the parenting and education markets, too. Parents and teachers are easy marks for “brain gyms,” “brain-compatible education,” and “brain-based parenting,” not to mention dozens of other unsubstantiated techniques. For the most part, these slick enterprises merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program. As one cognitive psychologist quipped, “Unable to persuade others about your viewpoint? Take a Neuro-Prefix—influence grows or your money back.”
But reading too much into brain scans matters when real-world concerns hang in the balance. Consider the law. When a person commits a crime, who is at fault? The perpetrator or his or her brain? Of course, this is a false choice. If biology has taught us anything, it is that “my brain” versus “me” is a false distinction. Still, if biological roots can be identified—and better yet, captured on a brain scan as juicy blotches of color—it is too easy for nonprofessionals to assume that the behavior under scrutiny must be “biological” and therefore “hardwired,” involuntary, or uncontrollable. Criminal lawyers, not surprisingly, are increasingly drawing on brain images supposedly showing a biological defect that “made” their clients commit murder. Looking to the future, some neuroscientists envision a dramatic transformation of criminal law. David Eagleman, for one, welcomes a time when “we may someday find that many types of bad behavior have a basic biological explanation [and] eventually think about bad decision making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.” As this comes to pass, he predicts, “more juries will place defendants on the not-blameworthy side of the line.”
But is this the correct conclusion to draw from neuroscientific data? After all, if every behavior is eventually traced to detectable correlates of brain activity, does this mean we can one day write off all troublesome behavior on a don’t-blame-me-blame-my-brain theory of crime? Will no one ever be judged responsible? Thinking through these profoundly important questions turns on how we understand the relationship between the brain and the mind.
The mind cannot exist without the brain. Virtually all modern scientists, ourselves included, are “mind-body monists”: they believe that mind and brain are composed of the same material “stuff.” All subjective experience, from a frisson of fear to the sweetness of nostalgia, corresponds to physical events in the brain. Decapitation proves this point handily: no functioning brain, no mind. But even though the mind is produced by the action of neurons and brain circuits, the mind is not identical with the matter that produces it. There is nothing mystical or spooky about this statement, nor does it imply an endorsement of mind-body “dualism,” the dubious assertion that mind and brain are composed of different physical material. Instead, it means simply that one cannot use the physical rules from the cellular level to completely predict activity at the psychological level. By way of analogy, if you wanted to understand the text on this page, you could analyze the words by submitting their contents to an inorganic chemist, who could ascertain the precise molecular composition of the ink. Yet no amount of chemical analysis could help you understand what these words mean, let alone what they mean in the context of the other words on the page.
Scientists have made great strides in reducing the organizational complexity of the brain from the intact organ to its constituent neurons, the proteins they contain, genes, and so on. Using this template, we can see how human thought and action unfold at a number of explanatory levels, working upward from the most basic elements. At one of the lower tiers in this hierarchy is the neurobiological level, which comprises the brain and its constituent cells. Genes direct neuronal development; neurons assemble into brain circuits. Information processing, or computation, and neural network dynamics hover above. At the middle level are conscious mental states, such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, knowledge, and intentions. Social and cultural contexts, which play a powerful role in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, occupy the highest landings of the hierarchy. Problems arise, however, when we ascribe too much importance to the brain-based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones. Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis.
The key to this approach is recognizing that some levels of explanation are more informative for certain purposes than others. This principle is profoundly important in therapeutic intervention. A scientist trying to develop a medication for Alzheimer’s disease will toil on the lower levels of the explanatory ladder, perhaps developing compounds aimed at preventing the formation of the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles endemic to the disease. A marriage counselor helping a distraught couple, though, must work on the psychological level. Efforts by this counselor to understand the couple’s problems by subjecting their brains to fMRIs could be worse than useless because doing so would draw attention away from their thoughts, feelings, and actions toward each other—the level at which intervention would be most helpful.
This discussion brings us back to brain scans and other representations of brain-derived data. What can we infer from this information about what people are thinking and feeling or how their social world is influencing them? In a way, imaging rekindles the age-old debate over whether brain equals mind. Can we ever fully comprehend the psychological by referring to the neural? This “hard problem,” as philosophers call it, is one of the most daunting puzzles in all of scientific inquiry. What would the solution even look like? Will the parallel languages of neurobiology and mental life ever converge on a common vernacular?
Many believe it will. According to neuroscientist Sam Harris, inquiry into the brain will eventually and exhaustively explain the mind and, hence, human nature. Ultimately, he says, neuroscience will—and should—dictate human values. Semir Zeki, the British neuroscientist, and legal scholar Oliver Goodenough hail a “‘millennial’ future, perhaps only decades away, [when] a good knowledge of the brain’s system of justice and of how the brain reacts to conflicts may provide critical tools in resolving international political and economic conflicts.” No less towering a figure than neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga hopes for a “brain-based philosophy of life” based on an ethics that is “…built into our brains. A lot of suffering, war, and conflict could be eliminated if we could agree to live by them more consciously.”
It’s no wonder, then, that some see neuroscientists as the “new high priests of the secrets of the psyche and explainers of human behavior in general.” Will we one day replace government bureaucrats with neurocrats? Though short on details—neuroscientists don’t say how brain science is supposed to determine human values or achieve world peace—their predictions are long on ambition. In fact, some experts talk of neuroscience as if it is the new genetics, that is, just the latest overarching narrative commandeered to explain and predict virtually all of human behavior. And before genetic determinism there was the radical behaviorism of B.F. Skinner, who sought to explain human behavior in terms of rewards and punishments. Earlier in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Freudianism posited that people were the products of unconscious conflicts and drives. Each of these movements suggested that the causes of our actions are not what we think they are. Is neurodeterminism poised to become the next grand narrative of human behavior?
As a psychiatrist and a psychologist, we have followed the rise of popular neuroscience with mixed feelings. We’re delighted to see laypeople so interested in brain science, and we are excited by the promise of new neurophysiological discoveries. Yet we’re dismayed that much of the media diet consists of “vulgarized neuroscience,” as the science watchdog Neuroskeptic puts it, that offers facile and overly mechanistic explanations for complicated behaviors. We were both in training when modern neuroimaging techniques made their debut. The earliest major functional imaging technique (PET, or positron emission tomography) appeared in the mid-1980s. Less than a decade later, the near wizardry of fMRI was unveiled and soon became a prominent instrument of research in psychology and psychiatry. Indeed, expertise in imaging technology is becoming a sine qua non for graduate students in many psychology programs, increasing their odds of obtaining federal research grants and teaching posts and boosting the acceptance rates of their papers by top-flight journals. Many psychology departments now make expertise in brain imaging a requirement for their new hires.
The brain is said to be the final scientific frontier, and rightly so, in our view. Yet in many quarters brain-based explanations appear to be granted a kind of inherent superiority over all other ways of accounting for human behavior. We call this assumption “neurocentrism”—the view that human experience and behavior can be best explained from the predominant or even exclusive perspective of the brain. From this popular vantage point, the study of the brain is somehow more “scientific” than the study of human motives, thoughts, feelings, and actions. By making the hidden visible, brain imaging has been a spectacular boon to neurocentrism.
Consider addiction. “Understanding the biological basis of pleasure leads us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction,” writes neuroscientist David Linden. This is popular logic among addiction experts, but to us, it makes little sense. Granted, there may be good reasons to reform the way the criminal justice system deals with addicts, but the biology of addiction is not one of them. Why? Because the fact that addiction is associated with neurobiological changes is not, in itself, proof that the addict is unable to choose. Just look at American actor Robert Downey Jr. He was once a poster boy for drug excess. “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger’s on the trigger, and I like the taste of gunmetal,” he said. It seemed only a matter of time before he would meet a horrible end. But Downey entered rehab and decided to change his life. Why did Downey use drugs? Why did he decide to stop and to remain clean and sober? An examination of his brain, no matter how sophisticated the probe, could not tell us why and perhaps never will. The key problem with neurocentrism is that it devalues the importance of psychological explanations and environmental factors, such as familial chaos, stress, and widespread access to drugs, in sustaining addiction.
Brain imaging and other neuroscience techniques hold enormous potential for elucidating the neural correlates of everyday decisions, addiction, and mental illness. Yet these promising new technologies must not detract from the importance of levels of analysis other than the brain in explaining human behavior. Ours is an age in which brain research is flourishing—a time of truly great expectations. Yet it is also a time of mindless neuroscience that leads us to overestimate how much neuroscience can improve legal, clinical, and marketing practices, let alone inform social policy. Naive media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.
Granted, it is only natural that advances in knowledge about the brain make us think more mechanistically about ourselves. But if we become too carried away with this view, we may impede one of the most challenging cultural projects looming in the years ahead: how to reconcile advances in brain science with personal, legal, and civic notions of freedom.
The neurobiological domain is one of brains and physical causes. The psychological domain, the domain of the mind, is one of people and their motives. Both are essential to a full understanding of why we act as we do and to the alleviation of human suffering. The brain and the mind are different frameworks for explaining experience. And the distinction between them is hardly an academic matter; it bears crucial implications for how we think about human nature, personal responsibility, and moral action.
This article is adapted from the authors’ new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (Basic Books, 2013). Extensive notes for this article (five pages) can be found in the book.