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“Chemtrails”? Really? Did you flunk science?

by Donald Prothero, Aug 06 2014

For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored this garbage on the internet, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve run into people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well. Now the chemtrail community circulates their photos and videos among themselves, put hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But the way the internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it’s getting impossible to ignore them any more, and it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails”, my reaction was “You can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some big government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And the fastest rebuttal I give when I run into one of these nuts is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Anything released at 30,000  feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below, and be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes must fly barely 30 feet off the ground so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!” Continue reading…

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Conspiracy theory sickos

by Donald Prothero, Jan 16 2013

We’re all familiar with the crazy ideas of the “9/11 Truthers”, who claim that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a great conspiracy by the Bush Administration to push their agenda and get public support for invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire topic has consumed many blogs on this site, and whole issues of Skeptic magazine, and need not be rehashed here. The simplest retort to the “9/11 Truthers” is the gross incompetence of the Bush Administration, and the fact that they couldn’t get their act together on things we know they were doing. Yet the supposed “Bush conspiracy” worked like a charm (except for the passengers of Flight 93 crashing their plane when they overpowered the hijackers), and not a single leak from all those people allegedly involved in that Byzantine plot has ever emerged. Given how many leaks have occurred since those events on many other failed Bush and CIA policies, it’s impossible to believe that they managed to keep this big a conspiracy secret for over 12 years now.

The same goes in Britain for the “7/7″ bombings of several buses and other sites in downtown London; there is a clique of conspiracy nuts mainly in England who could be called the “7/7 Truthers”. For the same reasons, they claim the “7/7″ bombings were orchestrated by the British government, even though they did not have the motive of Bush and Cheney to push the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are actually a wide range of other bizarre conspiracy advocates out there, and they all seem to form a large, poorly organized group of paranoid conspiracy nuts who believe that the U.N./Trilateral Commission/ Illuminati/ Freemasons/whatever big organization is out to get us, with their “black helicopters” and secret sleeper cells, ready to take power in the U.S. when the signal comes. Continue reading…

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Jesse “The Body” Ventura versus
Michael “The Mind” Shermer

by Michael Shermer, May 03 2011
Jesse Ventura

Jesse Ventura (photo by Cory Barnes, used under CC BY-SA 2.0)

On Monday afternoon, April 11, I appeared on Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Patt Morrison show to briefly debate (dare I saw wrestle?) the former Navy Seal, Minnesota Governor, professional wrestler, television host, and author Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who was on a book tour swing through Los Angeles promoting his latest conspiracy fictions he believes are facts entitled The 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You To Read. (The figure of 63 was chosen, Jesse says, because that was the year JFK was assassinated.) Presented in breathtaking revelatory tones that within lies the equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, what the reader actually finds between the covers are documents obtained through standard Freedom of Information Act requests that can also be easily downloaded from the Internet.

No matter, with bigger-than-life Jesse Ventura at the conspiratorial helm everything is larger than it seems, especially when his unmistakable booming voice pronounces them as truths. I had only a few hours to read the book, but that turned out to be more than adequate since most of the documents are familiar to us conspiracy watchers and what little added commentary is provided to introduce them appears to be mostly written by Ventura’s co-author Dick Russell, the pen behind the mouth for many of Jesse’s books. (Since he is no longer wrestling perhaps he should change his moniker to Jesse “The Mouth” Ventura.) Continue reading…

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Murder, Mass Die Offs, <br /> and the Meaning of Randomness

by Michael Shermer, Jan 12 2011

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday January 11, 2011 (under a different title and slightly shorter).

The media once again scrambled this past week to find the deep underlying causes of shocking events. We saw it in the rush to explain the tragic murder of six people in a shopping center in Tucson. And we saw it in the rush of stories about mass die offs of birds and fish around the country.

In the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center in Tucson, attention has turned to the motives of the shooter, 22-year old Jared Loughner, whose political ramblings about returning to the gold standard and about excessive control by the government have sent the media searching for answers in the vitriol of right-wing talk radio, the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, and the bellicose divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

The mass die offs of fish and birds has spurred a number of deep causal theories, including suggestions that the apocalypse is near and that secret government experiments were to blame, such as HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska that studies the ionosophere that is run by DARPA, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which admittedly does sound like something concocted by the writers for the television series X-Files. Continue reading…

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The Bilderberg Group on Wikileaks

by Brian Dunning, Oct 07 2010

A semi-anonymous poster on the web site, Jo from MO, has added a valuable link to my episode a couple weeks ago on The Bilderberg Group. The Bilderberg Group is an annual meeting of influential people from government, business, and economics from the United States and Western Europe, who gather unofficially to discuss issues facing the West. Consequently, conspiracy theorists default to their usual belief that any such gathering is planning Global Domination and is actually the secret world government.

Not that this new information will do anything to change those beliefs, but it's interesting for the rest of us. As you may know, WikiLeaks is an anonymously held web site that publishes classified documents, to the chagrin of governments and secret-holders everywhere. The Bilderberg Group does take minutes of their meetings, but as they are the private property of the Group, they are never made public. Somehow, somebody got ahold of the minutes from some of their earlier meetings and posted them. Continue reading…

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Pentagon Gunman a Conspiracy Theorist & 9/11 Truther

by Michael Shermer, Mar 10 2010

What’s the harm in believing nonsense? I get asked this all the time: “Oh come on Shermer, let people have their delusions, what’s the harm?”

I have a laundry list of retorts to this challenge, from the value of living in a rational world that is based in reality to tales of people who have died from discredited medical practices, such as “Attachment Therapy” — in April, 2000, 10-year old Candace Newmaker was smothered to death in blankets by therapists who were helping “rebirth” her so that she could properly attach to her adopted parents. Death by theory. (I wrote about this in Scientific American.)

What’s the harm? Ask the victims of the anti-Government nutter Joseph Stack, who flew his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas. It is one thing to be skeptical of excessive government intervention into private lives and businesses, it is quite another to take matters into your own hands, especially if those hands hold a gun. Continue reading…

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Grammar Contest Winner Announced

by Brian Dunning, Oct 29 2009

Secretly I’ve been holding a public grammar contest, open to anyone who sends me an email. Today, the winner is announced: Mr. Daren Lee of “The Zeitgeist Movement”. Initially, as his writing suggests that Mr. Lee has only a fifth grade education, I was going to disqualify him (must be 18 or older to enter). But the email headers suggest that he may actually be able to hold down a job, and so his entry is accepted and I’m proud to honor him today: Continue reading…

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Breaking News: Brian Dunning Acknowledges FEMA Prison Camps

by Brian Dunning, Sep 03 2009

A Google Alert recently brought my attention to the fact that I had, somehow and without my knowledge, suddenly joined the ranks of conspiracy theorists who believe that FEMA is building concentration camps throughout the United States to inter and kill law-abiding citizens. I wondered if perhaps I’d been mixing my Bloody Marys a bit strong. But then I noticed what site the article was on:, run by Alex Jones. Alex didn’t personally write the article – he was out running around with his strait jacket flapping half open, cackling like a banshee, pursued on foot by guys in white suits – it was written by Chuck Baldwin.

If you don’t know him, Chuck Baldwin is one of the more legitimate faces of the “Government is out to kill us all” conspiracy theorist crowd. Chuck was the 2008 Presidential candidate for the hardcore conservative Guns-n-Bibles Constitution Party. Chuck wrote: Continue reading…

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