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Do Ghosts Exist?

by Brian Dunning on Aug 30 2012

Ignorance and Want from A Christmas Carol, John Leech, 1843. Public domain image.

Since so many of my acquaintances know me as “that skeptic guy”, it’s not rare for one of them to challenge me with an experience they had, often reporting something like a ghost experience and saying “Disprove THAT, Mr. Skeptic.”

Of course, this completely misrepresents what I do, and where the process of skeptical science leads us. I’m far less qualified than my friend to prove or disprove his ghost experience; I wasn’t even there. In fact I’m always a little disappointed to find that my friends think I’m obsessively out to tell people that they’re wrong. If there is one thing that obsesses me, it’s the challenge of finding solutions to interesting mysteries — and telling people that they’re wrong is not relevant to that process. Proving alternate explanations wrong is collateral damage when a mystery is eventually solved, but it’s never the goal. (continue reading…)


The republican brain on science

by Donald Prothero on Aug 29 2012

A Review of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—and Reality by Chris Mooney, John Wiley, New York, 327 pages.

Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

—Stephen Colbert


Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

—Isaac Asimov


You can’t convince of believer of anything, for their belief is not based on evidence but on a deep-seated need to believe.

—Carl Sagan


Hearing the speakers at the GOP convention spout their ideas this week, I’m again reminded that an entire American political party is proudly and openly espousing views that are demonstrably contrary to reality, from claiming that rape does not cause pregnancy, to claiming that global climate change is a hoax, to even weirder idea, like the bizarre notion that the President of the United States is a Kenyan Muslim. For years, I’ve puzzled over why people can believe such weird things as creationism or other kinds of pseudoscience and science denials. In my 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, I devoted an entire chapter to asking why creationists can so confidently believe patently false ideas, and refuse to look at any evidence placed in front of them. I’ve compared it to Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass, where Alice steps through the mirror and finds that the objects and the landscape look vaguely familiar—but all the rules of logic are reversed or turned inside out. How can people continue to believe things that are clearly wrong, and refuse to change their ideas or look at evidence? (continue reading…)


Mystery UFO Photo

by Michael Shermer on Aug 28 2012

I thought I would share with you an email and photographs submitted to me by a gentleman named Marc Richard. Instead of telling you what I think it is, I’d like to hear from you what you think is the best explanation. Submit your best guess in the comments section below.

Hello, I’m not sure where to send these, or if your even looking for this kind of thing, couldn’t find a submissions page on the site. I have eight photos, I’ll send you two, if your interested I’d be happy to send the rest. Here’s what I wrote about the photos at the time I took them:

“On Oct, 19, 2009 at around 6:30pm, I was working on the 18th floor of my apartment building in downtown Detroit, when I noticed something floating around the two smoke stacks on the power plant near my place. It seemed to be hovering directly through the smoke of the stacks, and then around the two stacks, in between the two stacks, and then it would float a few blocks away and then back to the stacks. At this point I had been watching this thing for about 8 minutes or so when I ran to grab my camera and returned with my girlfriend and my brother in law. So I snapped off these pics which I can’t explain. It seems to be pretty small (about the size of one of those little smart cars?) I sent these photos to UFOs Northwest shortly after taking them. They’re still up on that site, nobody seems to have an explanation for them. If you have any questions I’d be happy to try and answer them.” (continue reading…)


Looking Back at TWA Flight 800

by Steven Novella on Aug 27 2012

On July 17, 1996 TWA flight 800 took off from JFK airport on its way to Paris. Fifteen minutes into its flight, shortly after climbing to about 13,000 feet, the jet exploded in mid air. The nose of the jet fell off into the Atlantic while the rest continued to fly, erratically while on fire and spewing smoke, until 42 seconds later when there was a second explosion. The right wing and the rest of the fuselage separated and descended as two separate streams of burning debris until they hit the surface of the water 7 seconds later. All 230 people aboard lost their lives.

Sixteen years later there are still those who believe that TWA flight 800 was shot down by a missile. This is despite the fact that the largest and most expensive investigation in history into the crash of a commercial airliner came to a very different conclusion. I had the opportunity this past week to speak to six different eyewitnesses of this tragedy, some of whom firmly believe a missile took down the jet, while others are unsure. The incident remains a classic historical case demonstrating the fallibility of perception and eyewitness accounts.

The Official Version of Events

The NTSB, FBI, FAA, CIA, and even NASA were involved in the investigation of the explosion of flight 800. At first everyone assumed it was a bomb. Jets don’t just spontaneously explode in mid-air. Then eyewitness accounts of a missile strike starting coming in and that became a viable theory (and that is also when the CIA became involved). The FBI interviewed 270 different eyewitnesses, mostly people on Long Island, who had an excellent view of the entire episode from the beach or further inland. There were also eyewitnesses on boats, surfing, and even aboard other airplanes.

(continue reading…)


Coast to Coasting

by Mark Edward on Aug 25 2012

Against my better intuitive judgement, I went on the highly popular “Coast to Coast AM” radio show to talk about “Psychic Blues” last night. It was an eye opening experience for everyone, not the least of which was me. I knew I was trending head first into the lion’s den by going this route, but without taking some chances, life can become quickly predictable – in a common sense way that is. (continue reading…)


A Blobsquatch for Amelia

by Brian Dunning on Aug 23 2012

The past week or so has seen yet another wave of terrible, terrible reporting in the science media about the Amelia Earhart non-story. We’ve had it a lot this year, ever since TIGHAR — the organization of crank Earhart researcher Ric Gillespie — obtained financing to repeat the Earhart treasure hunt he’s done so many times before for a Discovery Communications TV crew. Gillespie’s completely implausible belief is that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan did not crash where history tells us they did in 1937 (off of Howland island), but instead went to Nikumaroro island 650km away where they lived as castaways.

(I’m not going to repeat the details of how we know what we know, and why we can be assured that TIGHAR’s conjecture is bunk, because I’ve already done so in other writings. See the complete Skeptoid episode here, and a follow up blog post here, for the supporting background of my fundamental assumption for this article.)

Predictably, the expedition found nothing. This must have been a huge disappointment for a lot of people, since it got so much attention, even garnering encouraging comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and noted ocean explorer Bob Ballard. The unfortunate part is that if any of the parties who paid the reported $2.2 million cost of Gillespie’s expedition had done even a minimum amount of due diligence, they’d have discovered the same thing I stated in my Skeptoid podcast episode:

TIGHAR’s is a fringe theory supported by poor evidence and that has almost no serious support from mainstream historians or archaeologists. (continue reading…)


WHen cold fusion was hot

by Donald Prothero on Aug 22 2012

Stanley Pons (right) and Martin Fleischmann with a publicity shot staged to show them “working” on their experiment in 1989

The first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
—Richard Feynmann

The passing of Martin Fleischmann on August 3 brings to mind one of the most famous (and infamous) recent episodes in the history of science: the cold-fusion fiasco. Those of us who were involved in science in March 1989 (or just paying attention to the news) could not avoid hearing about Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann of the University of Utah supposedly producing nuclear fusion at room temperatures. Announced with great fanfare and huge press publicity on March 23, 1989, Pons and Fleischmann claimed that they had run simple electrochemical experiments in the lab that had managed to start a nuclear fusion reaction. Conventional nuclear physics had always argued that fusion (squeezing two or more atoms together to produce another atom) could only be produced at extreme temperatures and pressures, such as the fusion reactions that occur now to drive the heat engine at the core of the Sun. This is why nuclear fusion has only been used for hydrogen bombs and is not yet practical for nuclear energy or other peaceful uses. If Pons and Fleischmann were right, their discovery would revolutionize nuclear physics and possibly solve our energy problems with a source of energy that was cheap to obtain and not as dangerous as the various proposals for fusion reactors. The media immediately ran with the story on a massive scale, so that nobody who paid attention to the news at that time could possibly miss the message. (continue reading…)


The Muddle of Truth

by Michael Shermer on Aug 21 2012

What Really Happened on Fox’s TV show Moment of Truth:
Travis Walton responds to Michael Shermer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Travis Walton explains his side of what happened on this dreadful Fox television show on which I also appeared and described in last week’s Skepticblog. To understand Walton’s explanation you should read that article first, but if you don’t have time the upshot of the story is that Travis Walton claims that on November 5, 1975 he was abducted into a UFO in an Arizona national forest during a logging job and that his co-workers witnessed the event. According to the late UFO investigator Philip Klass, Walton passed one polygraph test (published) but failed another (unpublished), and in his opinion Walton and his associates made up the story as an excuse for failing to complete the logging job on time. Walton’s side of the story is recounted in detail in his 1978 book The Walton Experience, later reissued as Fire in the Sky, the title of the 1993 film based on the book. —Michael Shermer

With the recent airing overseas of the canceled Fox television show, Moment of Truth some people may have been mislead into believing that some shocking new revelation about the famous logging crew UFO case has come to light. Quite the contrary. Now that the airing of the show ends the “gag clause” in my contract (with its $1 million penalty) I am free to reveal that Moment of Truth has used testing methods that the producers were informed from the beginning were long ago completely discredited by every polygraph expert, lie detector school, and polygraph professional association in existence. I’ll quote here specific condemnations of the show’s methods by four of the world’s most highly respected polygraph experts who agree: “the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” I will reveal other blatant deceptions the show has committed. And I will provide details of how, after the show, I underwent two of the most rigorous new polygraph tests available anywhere in the world.

I should have seen it coming. I should have known better. But there were unique circumstances. (continue reading…)


Nocebo Nonsense

by Steven Novella on Aug 20 2012

You have probably had the experience of having a heated conversation with one or more other people and after things calm down and you are comparing notes you find that everyone has a different memory of the conversation that just happened. Of course, you are certain that your memory is the one that’s correct.

Likewise, different people can look at the same set of information and come to radically different interpretations. That’s because we all have narratives inside our head – worldviews and ways in which we model and make sense of the world.  We are very clever and creative at incorporating new information into our existing narratives.

I was reminded of this when reading a recent article by Deepak Chopra on the nocebo effect. Nocebo effects are similar to placebos effect except they are negative – unwanted side effects that are reported from taking inactive placebos. Chopra clearly has a narrative that he is working from, one that is very different from my own. He is steeped in, and in fact is partly the architect of, various “alternative medicine” narratives.

(continue reading…)


The Toothpaste Puzzle

by Brian Dunning on Aug 16 2012

Most people get the right answer to the toothpaste puzzle, but it never ceases to surprise me how many get it wrong, and even staunchly argue their position. I’ve even seen it tested by taking a tube of toothpaste to the bottom of a swimming pool.

The question: What would happen if you took a tube of toothpaste to the bottom of the sea, and then opened it? It’s a great party question. Try it sometime. (continue reading…)


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