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Resolving Conflicts in Findings: Vaccine Promotion is Tricky

A few months ago I wrote about the psychology of vaccine denial. In the post I discussed two publications, one of which (Nyhan, et al.) found:

Corrective information reduced misperceptions about the vaccine/autism link but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines. Moreover, images of children who have MMR and a narrative about a child who had measles actually increased beliefs in serious vaccine side effects.

None of the interventions increased parents’ intent to vaccinate.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to this piece describing research which seems to contradict that finding. The authors (Horne, et al.) concluded that

…highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases can positively impact people’s attitudes to vaccination.

These two conclusions seem to contradict each other. Which should we believe?


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eSkeptic for August 26, 2015


Finalist for the 2014 Lane Anderson Award for Best Science Book for Young Readers

We are pleased to announce that Plesiosaur Peril has just been selected as a top three finalist for the prestigious Lane Anderson Award in the Young Reader category in 2014. This award is Canada’s largest literary prize specific to science writing. Congratulations, Daniel Loxton!

Loxton is the Editor of Junior Skeptic (the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine). This is Daniel’s third time as a finalist for this award, which he won in 2011 for his book Evolution: How We And All Living Things Came to Be.

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Get all 3 Tales of Prehistoric Life for $45

Eve Siebert
One Toke Over The Line, Sweet Shakespeare

An anthropologist has argued that Shakespeare used cannabis for inspiration. Shakespeare may have been a stoner, but the physical evidence is weak and the literary analysis is dreadful.

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Science and Hollywood: When the Martian Met the Earthlings

The Martian (audiobook cover) The Martian (film poster)

Andy Weir’s gripping tale of a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars (entitled, simply enough, The Martian), is coming to Hollywood on October 2, and it is going to be another Ridley Scott blockbuster. I listened to the unabridged audio edition of the book, brilliantly narrated by R. C. Bray, who supremely navigates through multiple voices and actually sounds a bit like Matt Damon, who plays the novel’s hero Mark Watney in the film. It well deserves its rating of 4.7/5 on an almost unbelievable 45,790 ratings on Add to that the 4.6/5 rating from 14,536 customer reviews on Amazon and you have a genuine cultural book event. A lot of people have read this book. And if the NASA scientists at the August 18 press conference at the La Canada theaters and JPL are right, this could translate to a new generation of scientists from the ranks of young people sure to flock to this action-adventure science fiction film.

Just like “Scotty” on Star Trek inspired a generation of kids to go into STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Damon’s Watney is sure to do the same as he cuts a heroic action figure loaded with math and engineering skills enough to, as he says, “science the shit” out of the problem he finds himself in.

The Science-and-Hollywood connection was evident at the press conference, starting with comments from the Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Charles Elachi…


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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Stephen Beckner reviews Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary film The Look of Silence, produced by Signe Byrge, Executive Producers Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Andre Singer Sørensen, Presented by Drafthouse Films, Participant Media, and Final Cut For Real, 103 minutes. The above image is a still from the film.

Stephen Beckner is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He is best known for his feature film A.K.A. Birdseye. He is currently developing a feature film project based on the American militia movement of the early 1990s. In addition to his work in film, he has collaborated on video games, notably as head writer for the award-winning multi-platform adventure game Perils of Man.

Anatomy of a (Mass) Murder

by Stephen Beckner

Let sleeping dogs lie, the old saw goes, but judging from his latest documentary, writer/director Joshua Oppenheimer doesn’t subscribe to that particular bit of folk wisdom. No, for all its impartial probing and careful emotional inquisitiveness, The Look of Silence aims to stir things up. In fact, it wants to raise the dead.

Like its companion piece, the 2012 Academy Award nominated The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s subject is Indonesia’s anti-communist purge, a frenzy of violence and butchery at the hands of vigilante youths cum organized death squads. Between 1965 and 1966, with the explicit consent of the Indonesian military, anyone suspected of being a communist, harboring communist sympathies, or in some cases just knowing a suspected communist, was rounded up and delivered to busy backrooms that functioned as human clearing houses, where zealous young men—many of them gangsters before the Suharto regime found a suitable use for their dubious skillsets—saw it as their duty to beat, stab, and/or garrote the evil offenders. Corpses were then rendered into mass graves, or heaved into local rivers under cover of darkness. For years, the scale of the mass killings was not known to the outside world, but is now estimated at more than a million dead. Fifty years on, there has been no moral or legal reckoning—the killings are still missing from Indonesia’s official history, though the killers themselves live as heroes amongst their fellow citizens, revered by some, feared by many.

As topics for documentary go, political pogroms are nothing new, but then Oppenheimer’s films are not political. What sets these documentaries apart, and what makes them of particular interest to skeptics, is Oppenheimer’s analytical approach to his subject. His characters are not players in service to a political argument so much as psychological test subjects. In The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer treats his participants—former killers all—with a clinician’s emotional distance. We watch in astonishment as the now-aging men are given a grant to confront their violent pasts by making personal films ostensibly reenacting their “heroic” deeds, and proceed to lose themselves like mice in a laboratory maze of their own making.

The principal figure of the film, Anwar Congo, casts himself as a noir gangster, and demonstrates the evolution of his killing techniques as demand for his services increased. But when he briefly steps into the role of one of his victims, the look in his eyes changes, his psychological armor slips away. Oppenheimer’s steadfast refusal to judge the participants increases their trust in the process and in turn they make themselves more emotionally available. What emerges is at a once a rending human tragedy, and a forensic debriefing on the mechanics of guilt and the psychological contortions men put themselves through to avoid it. Oppenheimer’s camera works like a scalpel, cutting through the layers of rationalizations to expose the underlying psychological anatomy of…not killers, but of ordinary men who became killers, and who have tried in vain for five decades to become ordinary men again.

When Hannah Arendt was covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, she famously employed the phrase “banality of evil” to underscore Eichmann’s ordinariness. The context of Eichmann’s trial was personal guilt for a state-sponsored crime. The crime itself was never in doubt. But in Indonesia the evil prevailed, the orchestrators of their genocide were never brought to justice, and no crime was ever acknowledged. As a consequence, the banality of evil is on full display, and The Look of Silence gives us the opportunity to witness it up close. Here Oppenheimer shifts the point of view from the perpetrators to the survivors, focusing on the family of Ramli, one of the rare victims whose murder was witnessed and whose remains rest in a marked grave near the Snake River. Because of this, Ramli has come to represent all the victims. His brother Adi, born a year after Ramli’s death, sets out to meet the killers, who openly boast about the unspeakably brutal execution. One of the men, concerned that his place in history may be overlooked, has even self published a memoir with hand drawn illustrations depicting the night’s gruesome proceedings.

Meeting Adi was fortuitous for Oppenheimer, who understood early on that his strength of character and remarkable composure under pressure made him the ideal person to conduct these encounters. A practicing optometrist, Adi visits the killers under the guise of checking their eyes. As he edges closer to the subject of his brother, he never allows anger or resentment to dominate the conversations, even when he has every right to do so. Instead, it is Adi’s abiding sadness that prevails. More than anything, he simply wants to make sense of it all. But inevitably, when the men learn that Adi is the brother of Ramli, their stories change. We see their minds suddenly racing to rationalize their behavior. They were merely agents of the state, they say, acting for the greater good, purging a societal evil, etc. In the psychological denuding that ensues, even their boasting is revealed as a coping mechanism to assuage their guilt. And should all these fail, threats to Adi and his family serve to shift the blame.

In perhaps the most vivid example of the lengths to which these men went to avoid moral culpability, many claimed that it was common practice for the killers to drink the blood of their victims. Failing to do so resulted in certain madness, they averred, and those who abstained from the vampiric ritual were avoided or shunned. As shocking as these confessions are, the film never surrenders to its most lurid details. Oppenheimer’s gaze remains detached, constantly seeking out broader, and ultimately scarier moral implications. We are reminded that silence has its price. If you let sleeping dogs lie, then lie they will. They will lie mostly to themselves at first, but eventually the lies will proliferate.

For some in the skeptical community, there’s a certain morbid satisfaction to be derived from seeing individual cognitive biases so incisively exposed. But any temptation to rubberneck quickly fades when those biases are blatantly enlisted on a societal scale by the state in the service of death. In a telling NBC news report from that time, one Indonesian official claims that many of the communists came forward and asked to be killed—an invocation of the notion of atonement that slyly connects communism with religious sin. Many death squad members later claimed that they knew their victims were communists because they didn’t pray. This convenient narrative equating godlessness with communism has now been institutionalized in Indonesia by a federal blasphemy law aimed not only at making atheism a capital offense, but also at rationalizing the current regime’s murderous origins.

For all its forensic power, The Look of Silence remains a deeply compassionate film. It is provocative, but what it’s trying to provoke finally, is understanding. The titular silence is a closed door that prevents that understanding, trapping perpetrator and survivor alike. Crucially, Oppenheimer never gives us the easy out of dehumanizing the killers. They are not depicted as creatures apart, monsters stalking the wrong side of some unseen but impenetrable moral barrier. No, they are ordinary men, banal men, who became killers in a specifically identifiable way. This viewer could not escape the chilling conclusion that we are, all of us, only a couple of rationalizations away from the killer inside. It’s easy to find him—heartbreakingly, terrifyingly easy. END

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One Toke Over The Line, Sweet Shakespeare

So stoned he doesn't realize his quill is nowhere near the paper.

So stoned he doesn’t realize his quill is nowhere near the paper.

There is brand new evidence that Shakespeare was a pothead! This exciting story has appeared on the websites of TIME, the Los Angeles Times, CNBC, the Today Show, CNN, and many more outlets. And the brand new evidence is only fourteen years old! And it’s really weak evidence.

Francis Thackeray, Phillip Tobias Chair in Paleoanthropology at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, recently published a short piece called “Shakespeare, plants, and chemical analysis of early 17th century clay ‘tobacco’ pipes from Europe” in the South African Journal of Science. But this isn’t the first time Thackeray has written about the topic. Oh, far from it. His one-page piece in the “Scientific Correspondence” section includes twelve end notes, nine of which cite nine different writings authored or co-authored by Thackeray.


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eSkeptic for August 19, 2015

Edwina Rogers
A Conservative Skeptic

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek brings another interview from his trip to The Amazing Meeting 13: a discussion with Edwina Rogers. Edwina is currently the CEO for the Secular Policy Institute where she is helping bring more critical thought into the halls of American Government. Find out more about how a conservative from rural Alabama came to be such a major champion for science and critical thinking.

Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available on the App Store
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The Latest Episode of Mr. Deity: Mr Deity and the Sting

Mr. Deity commissions a former pastor to infiltrate big Atheism.


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall reviews The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition, by Gregory Hickok. This review first appeared on the Science-Based Medicine Blog and also in Skeptic magazine 20.2 (2015).

Harriet Hall is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is

The Use and Abuse of Mirror Neurons

a book review by Harriet Hall, M.D.

I couldn’t say it any better than Steven Pinker did on the jacket blurb of this important book:

Every now and again an idea from science escapes from the lab and takes on a life of its own as an explanation for all mysteries, a validation of our deepest yearnings, and irresistible bait for journalists and humanities scholars… Hickok puts an end to this monkey business by showing that mirror neurons do not, in fact, explain language, empathy, society, and world peace. But this is not a negative exposé—the reader of this book will learn a great deal of the contemporary sciences of language, mind, and brain, and will find that the reality is more exciting than the mythology.

Mirror neurons were discovered serendipitously during a study of macaque monkeys where researchers were recording the activity of individual brain cells. They found single cells that fired when the monkey grasped an object. Then they happened to notice something they hadn’t expected: the cells also fired as the monkey observed the experimenter grasping an object to set up the next trial.

In all, they recorded data from 184 neurons in the F5 motor area of the brain. Almost all of them fired when the monkey performed some kind of action, just as would be expected from cells in the motor cortex. But 87 of these also responded to some type of visual stimuli: 48 responded to seeing objects and 39 responded to seeing actions; of these, 12 neurons responded most strongly when the monkey grasped an object and also when it observed the researcher performing the same action.

The initial interpretation of the scientists: one of the functions of that part of the brain is to retrieve appropriate motor acts in response to sensory stimuli. Monkeys have rich social interactions, so it makes sense that the brain has a mechanism for communicating information about perceived actions of others to motor areas that code self-actions for execution. So far, so good. But they went on to suggest that their findings might have implications for two areas of human research that seemed to show a similar observation/execution correspondence:

Limb apraxia, where patients unable to perform an action had been reported to have deficits in understanding the limb gestures of others.

The motor theory of speech perception, the idea that we perceive speech by reconstructing the motor gestures that generated those sounds.

Hickok suggests that the experimental setup had trained the monkeys to associate their own grasp with a reward, and to associate the grasp of the researcher with an upcoming new reward. What the researchers had observed might be merely a reflection of how the brain stores, organizes, and retrieves memories and learned motor patterns. They could have been seeing a generalized phenomenon of association rather than anything mirror-like. If so, the association process itself would be a more promising area for further research.

The findings in monkeys were replicated in other primates but not in humans. Researchers assumed that humans also had a mirror neuron system, but that assumption is supported only by indirect evidence from transcranial magnetic stimulation studies, PET scans, and the observation that patients with damage to Broca’s area had pantomime recognition defects. Hickok points out that those findings are not enough to prove that humans have mirror neurons, and that they might well have non-mirror explanations.

Speculation soon ran amok and mirror neurons became wildly popular. Hickok says the idea was seductive because of three factors:

  1. You could explain it in one line: “We understand action because the motor representation of that action is activated in our brain.”
  2. It promised to bring this simplicity of explanation to many complex problems.
  3. It was grounded in hardcore animal neurophysiology, providing a neural mechanism for human cognition and revealing an evolutionary pathway.

Mirror neuron research studies proliferated. Mirror neurons were soon implicated in everything from contagious yawning to autism. Hickok lists 37 areas of mirror neuron research and provides citations. I won’t copy the whole list, but it includes schizophrenia, sexual orientation, cigarette smoking, political attitudes, felt presence, the degree of male erection, spectator sport appreciation, drug abuse, and “misattribution of anger in the music of avant-garde jazz saxophonists.” It’s an astonishing body of speculation to have developed from an interpretation of those 12 original macaque neurons, an interpretation that Hickok thinks was probably wrong.

He describes a number of anomalies that are inconsistent with mirror neuron theory. You’ll have to read the book for the details, but I’ll just mention one of his points that made me laugh. When a man sees someone kicking another man in the balls, it doesn’t prompt him to mirror the kicking behavior; it prompts him to display a very different behavior, to cringe and protect his own groin. Hickok acknowledges that anomalies don’t necessarily prove a theory wrong, but in this case the sheer number of anomalies is cause for concern and should lead us to explore alternative explanations.

Skeptic magazine 20.2 (cover)

This article appeared in this issue of Skeptic magazine. Order the issue.

To give one example, mirror neurons seemed to provide a convenient explanation for autism. Autistics appear to lack the ability to understand the goals and intentions of others, to read their emotions, to empathize, and to share attention with others. It is said that they lack a “theory of mind” because of a deficit in mirror neurons. But there is really no good evidence that mirror neurons have anything to do with these abilities, and autistics don’t behave as the mirror theory would predict. There is a false-belief test where children are asked to predict where another person will look for an object when only the child knows it has been moved. Young children who can’t pass the false-belief test lack the ability to understand what is going on in another person’s mind, but they don’t behave as if they are autistic.

Hickok favors another hypothesis: that autism is not a matter of deficits at all, but of hypersensitivity to sensory inputs. This concept has been called “the intense world syndrome.” Maybe they don’t pay attention to human faces because it is painful for them to be flooded with the associated emotional sensations. Maybe the repetitive behaviors, fixations, and other features of autism are protective measures to numb them against the onslaught of overwhelming sensory input. This tallies with Temple Grandin’s “squeeze box” she invented to calm her when she felt anxious and overstimulated. Instead of claiming that he understands autism, Hickok merely proposes a hypothesis for investigation. Perhaps the best thing in the book is this sentence: “I remain a skeptic, even of my own ideas.” The words of a true scientist!

The case of autism brings up a point that applies across the board: we must be careful when making inferences about behavior. If an autistic person doesn’t appear to recognize emotions in others, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t recognize them. We can observe a behavior, but we shouldn’t be hasty about assuming we know why the behavior occurs. If a person doesn’t drink milk, we might infer that he doesn’t like it; but it might be that he loves milk but is lactose intolerant. Similarly, when a part of the brain lights up on a PET scan, it indicates increased metabolic activity, but the neurons might be more active because they are working to suppress a response rather than to augment it. Hickok shows in detail how the research on mirror neurons may have gone astray because of false assumptions and jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

The Myth of Mirror Neurons is a fascinating, game-changing book. It explains the details of research studies and its reasoning is thoroughly backed up by citations from the scientific literature. It is not an easy read; some of the concepts are hard to grasp at first, especially for those not familiar with the relevant literature and the terminology. But it offers a valuable lesson in how scientists can be led down the wrong path and how errors can be compounded. It shows how important it is to make sure research data justify the conclusions, to search rigorously for disconfirming evidence, and to make sure alternative explanations have been considered and adequately ruled out. The book accomplishes two goals: it sheds serious doubt on almost everything that has been written about mirror neurons, and it describes cutting edge neuroscience research that may eventually lead us to a better understanding of how communication and cognition really work. No real answers, but plenty of questions. And after all, one of the most important things in science is knowing which questions to ask. END

Rent Gregory Hickok’s lecture on Vimeo On Demand
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eSkeptic for August 12, 2015

Donald Prothero
Pilgrimage to Bigfoot Country

Donald Prothero pays a visit to Bigfoot’s traditional American stomping grounds in California’s Klamath Mountains.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Paulette Cooper could be called the poster child for Scientology’s “fair game” abuses against a critical journalist. The story has been told many times with varying levels of detail, in most books about the history of Scientology written in the past four decades. But the story has, until now, been incomplete. In this week’s eSkeptic, Jim Lippard reviews Tony Ortega’s comprehensive account of Paulette Cooper’s story. The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology Tried to Destroy Paulette Cooper.

Jim Lippard is a long-time skeptic who works in the information security field. He founded the Phoenix Skeptics in 1985, and has contributed to Skeptic, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Skeptical Briefs, The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Joe Nickell’s book Psychic Sleuths, and Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Read Jim’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Scientology’s Worst Abuses Against a Journalist Revealed

by Jim Lippard

Paulette Cooper was harassed, tricked, sued, and lied to, but was not destroyed. The Church of Scientology’s “fair game” policy, originally written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1965 and elaborated in a series of policy letters over subsequent years, stated that “suppressive persons”—defined as anyone interfering with the Church’s activities—are “fair game” for “any action” taken against them, including being “deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. [Such persons] May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed.”1

Paulette Cooper wrote an article for the December 1969 issue of the British magazine Queen titled “The Tragi-Farce of Scientology.”2 The Church of Scientology responded by suing her in Great Britain in 1970. When she turned her article into a 1971 book entitled The Scandal of Scientology, they sued her again. And again. Repeatedly.

Scientology harassed Cooper over the telephone, put her telephone number on bathroom walls, distributed fliers to her neighbors accusing her of prostitution, and monitored her movements and telephone calls. They broke into her psychiatrist’s office and copied records of her college counseling sessions. They gained access to her apartment and copied embarrassing passages out of her teenage diary and delivered them to her adoptive father’s office. They moved undercover operatives into her apartment building, who then befriended her and continually kept the Church updated on her behavior and emotional state. They framed her for bomb threats against Scientology in an attempt to have her imprisoned or committed to a mental institution. Because they used stationery with her fingerprints and her typewriter to create a threatening note, she was indicted and under threat of prosecution for years. The Church planned “Operation Freakout” to frame her again for bomb threats, this time against the Embassy of a Middle Eastern country—plans that were not carried out before Scientology itself was raided by the FBI in 1977 and Cooper was finally cleared of the charges that had been hanging over her.

Most of the above details are parts of a fairly well-known narrative of Cooper’s battles with Scientology, which make her the poster child for “fair game” abuses against a critical journalist. The story has been told many times with varying levels of detail, in most books about the history of Scientology written in the past four decades.3 But the story has, until now, been incomplete.

Journalist and blogger Tony Ortega, former editor of the Village Voice, executive editor of The Raw Story, and now executive editor at, has written a new book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, which is a comprehensive account of Paulette Cooper’s story. By tracking down sources no previous investigator had interviewed, digging into neglected documents, and with some help from individuals who have left Scientology as well as from his subject, Ortega has written the definitive account of the lengths to which Scientology went in its ultimately failed attempts to destroy Paulette Cooper.

Ortega was ideally suited to write this book. His blog, The Underground Bunker,4 is the most popular blog on Scientology. His daily posts document its decline, and he has cultivated numerous sources that include former senior officials in Scientology and even sources still inside the organization. Ortega followed Cooper’s path tracking down the sources she used to write her book and interviewing people who had been in her life—friends, family, and Scientologists operating covertly, such as Nancy Many and Len Zinberg, both of whom have now left the Church. Many’s own book revealed her refusal to break into Cooper’s psychiatrist’s office for Scientology’s Guardian Office (their covert operations and dirty tricks unit).5 Zinberg, who joined Scientology as a teenager, was the person who delivered Cooper’s teen diary excerpts to her father, an action he now regrets and for which he has apologized to Cooper.6

The Unbreakable Miss Lovely contains three main narratives—Paulette’s life story, focusing on her interactions with the Church of Scientology; the story of her biological parents, who were murdered by the Nazis during WWII; and the story of the Scientology’s Snow White Program, a project to infiltrate government offices and obtain information about its plans regarding Scientology. Each of these stories contains previously unpublished information; even Paulette didn’t know the details of what had happened to her biological parents before she came to the U.S. from a Belgian orphanage in 1948 at the age of six, and was separated from her older sister who grew up in Belgium. The first narrative is the shortest, told in a prologue and part of a chapter mid-way through the book. The second, on the Snow White Program, is told in two chapters, while the third makes up the bulk of the book.

Ortega’s account of the Snow White Program uncovers new details about how the FBI discovered Scientology’s government office break-ins, because he was the first journalist to interview Special Agent Christine Hansen. Hansen was the one who cracked the case, when, after she obtained warrants for the arrests of two suspicious men using fake identification cards in government offices, she noticed one of the two men at the main IRS building in Washington D.C. and arrested Gerald Wolfe on June 30, 1976. A year later, on July 8, 1977, the FBI simultaneously raided the Church of Scientology’s offices in D.C. and Los Angeles, carting out truckloads of boxes of documents, including plans of covert operations against Paulette Cooper, the unexecuted “Operation Freakout,” and the earlier bomb threat frame-up, “Operation Dynamite.”

While the book is a highly sympathetic portrait of Paulette Cooper, it is not a hagiography. Cooper sometimes comes across as gullible, as she repeatedly falls into Scientology’s traps. This appearance is no doubt partly accounted for by hindsight bias—in the 1970s Cooper did not have the benefit of knowing the lengths to which Scientology was willing to go to attack and harass her that we’ve learned from the FBI raid documents and the growing literature exposing Scientology’s activities. But many may find her gullible7 for signing a 1980 employment contract for a D.C. private investigator, Richard Bast, containing a clause that “expressly gives to the Employer her prior consent to intercept any of her wire/oral communications.” Bast, who claimed to be working for a wealthy Swiss man whose daughter had killed herself after joining Scientology, paid Cooper $2,000 a month to work for him, allowing her to quit freelance writing work and focus on researching Scientology.

In fact, Bast was working for Scientology, and therefore so was Cooper, unwittingly. Everything she uncovered was funneled to Scientology, giving them a heads-up on potential trouble and the ability to find out what their critics were up to. More recently, in 2011, former Scientology senior leader Marty Rathbun asserted that Vanity Fair writer John Connolly, who Ortega writes “regularly checked in with…Cooper” to discuss Scientology (p. 385), was also reporting back to the Church. Rathbun quoted the text of a 2006 Scientology document reporting a meeting by Connolly with Andrew Morton, purportedly to get details about the book Morton was working on about Tom Cruise.

More disturbing than the evidence of gullibility is the evidence of Cooper’s willingness to sometimes be ethically flexible about telling the truth, which comes out in the recordings Bast made of her. Ortega’s book recounts some of the more embarrassing excerpts, in which Cooper talks about planting drugs inside Scientology’s D.C. church and belittles her friend Nan McLean for her “stupid honesty” in paying a huge $800 bill for copying documents from the FBI raid while Cooper lied about how much she copied and paid only $89.50. She also criticized McLean for being unwilling to feign lapses of memory during depositions in Scientology legal cases. Ortega notes (p. 380) that some ex-Scientologists could not understand why he was writing a book about her, that they considered her to be unimportant and a “bad person.”

While the exposure of the Bast tapes damaged Cooper’s credibility, she still resolved her lawsuits with Scientology and received a substantial settlement before Hubbard’s death in 1986, and turned to writing about dogs and cats. Others have taken up writing about Scientology, but her book remains the earliest substantial critique of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard, a classic of what is now becoming a well-populated genre. Ortega’s book, his first, now joins the ranks of the best of these, and Ortega has been on a speaking tour for the book, sometimes with the company of Paulette Cooper herself, often speaking to local skeptical groups.8 END

  1. Wikipedia’s page on the fair game policy is quite comprehensive.
  2. Cooper first learned about Scientology from: Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (2nd ed).
  3. Cooper’s story is told in: Cooper, Paulette. 1971. The Scandal of Scientology: A chilling examination of the nature, beliefs, and practices of the “Now religion.” Online at; Reitman, Janet. 2011. Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion (pp. 116–117); Atack, Jon. 1990. A Piece of Blue Sky: Scientology, Dianetics and L. Ron Hubbard Exposed (pp. 223–224); Corydon, Bent. 1992. L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman? (pp. 172–178); Lamont, Stewart. 1986. Religion Inc.: The Church of Scientology (pp. 71–72), and Wright, Lawrence. 2013. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (pp. 117–119, 140–141), among others.
  5. Many, Nancy. 2009. My Billion Year Contract: Memoir of a Former Scientologist.
  6. Tony Ortega, “The Scientology spy who came in from the cold: Len Zinberg, who apologized to Paulette Cooper,” The Underground Bunker, June 15, 2015,
  7. Skeptics may also wonder about Cooper’s gullibility in light of her work for the tabloid newspaper National Enquirer on celebrities, as well as her co-authorship (with her husband) of The 100 Top Psychics and Astrologers in America 2014 and 100 Top Psychics in America: Their Stories, Specialties—and How to Contact Them. Cooper also wrote two columns for the Huffington Post in 2014 about a psychic and a tarot card reader.
  8. Ortega’s speaking schedule is published at his blog;
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Pilgrimage to Bigfoot Country

Last month I was doing geologic field work in northern California, and I had the opportunity to travel across the Klamath Mountains. Naturally, I saw many of the signs of Bigfoot Country. There’s a tacky “museum” and store down in Garberville near the Humboldt Redwoods, right off Highway 101, and there are Bigfoot merchandisers everywhere in the Klamaths. But the epicenter of Squatcher country (as the hunters of Sasquatch call themselves) is the Willow Creek-Bluff Creek area, in the central Klamaths.

Willow Creek is a tiny little town deep in the forests of the Klamath Mountains, with a population of only 1743. Logging has been its main source of income in the past but today it is tourism. And Willow Creek is truly Bigfoot Central. Almost every business in town caters to Bigfoot tourism. There is a Bigfoot Motel, Bigfoot Books, Bigfoot Contracting Supply, Bigfoot Rafting Company, and Bigfoot Restaurant, just to mention a few with “Bigfoot” in their business name. Every Labor Day weekend (this year on Sept. 5, 2015), Willow Creek hosts its annual “Bigfoot Daze” festival. Most famous of all is the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, with a room dedicated to its collections about Bigfoot. The exhibits are not that impressive: mostly hand-typed signs and labels, lots of fading newspaper clippings and fuzzy photographs, various casts of “Bigfoot prints,” and so on. The town also boasts numerous sculptures of Bigfoot in many places, including a more than twice-life-size statue outside the Bigfoot Museum, and redwood carvings outside the local Patriot gas station and the Visitor Information Center. There’s a Bigfoot Avenue and Little Foot Court, as well as a Patterson Avenue (and this town only has a few streets). Just like the areas around Loch Ness, and Lake Champlain (home of “Champ”), and other places in the cryptozoology lore, cryptid-tourism is big business, and supports a significant portion of the economy in a town as remote and tiny as Willow Creek.


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eSkeptic for August 5, 2015

Blake Smith
New Facts Concerning Goddard Squadron Photo

Blake Smith revisits the mystery of the "Goddard’s Squadron Ghost" in light of new evidence. This post continues Blake’s exploration of the “Goddard’s Squadron Ghost” photo. Read his first post on the topic, “Should Goddard’s Squadron Drop Dead Fred?” (published February 2, 2015).

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Natalia Reagan
Squatchin’ Time!

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek continues his series of special content he recorded while attending The Amazing Meeting 13. Just after she gave her talk on stage, Derek sat down with Natalia Reagan: anthropologist, writer, actress, and comedienne. Using her specialized knowledge in primatology, she was one of the judges on the television show, “10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.” Find out a bit more about how Natalia decided to leverage her advanced science degree and experience into a form of skeptical outreach which has been seen by millions.

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The Meaning of Life in a Formula: Can Science Help Us Overcome the Terror of Existence?

Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a tough-minded skeptic who did not suffer fools gladly when it came to pseudoscience and superstition. Gould was a secular Jew who did not believe in God, but he had a soft spot for religion, expressed most famously in his principle of NOMA—nonoverlapping magisteria. The magisterium (domain of authority) of science “covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” he wrote in his 1999 book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. “The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

In part, Gould’s motivations were personal (he told me on many occasions how much respect he had for religion and for his many religious friends and colleagues). But in his book, he claimed that “NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectual grounds, not a merely diplomatic solution.” For NOMA to work, however, Gould insisted that just as “religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions residing properly within the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution.” …

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Modern-day mystics have at their disposal a vast and ever-growing arsenal of scientific vocabulary, and employ it liberally in arguing for such practices as quantum healing and energy medicine, variants of which have in recent decades grown into billion dollar industries, supported by millions of consumers. Surely that many people can’t be wrong, can they? In this week’s eSkeptic, Jérémie Harris examines some of the vocabulary often invoked by mystics in the quantum healing community, and contrasts their usage of that vocabulary with current scientific definitions. This article appeared Skeptic magazine 20.1 in 2015.
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Jérémie Harris is a Ph.D. student in quantum photonics under the Canada Excellence Research Chair in quantum nonlinear optics, at the Max Planck – University of Ottawa Centre for Extreme and Quantum Photonics. He holds a Master’s degree in biological physics from the University of Toronto. His work addresses foundational questions and paradoxes in quantum mechanics, and the creation of exotic structured matter waves.

Quantum Cure-All or Quackery?
Can Superpositions of Quantum Consciousness Unlock Your Brain’s Hidden Nonlocal Potentiality?

by Jérémie Harris

They were once called snake oil salesmen. Today, proponents of mystical healing and alternative medicine offer remedies for a plethora of diseases and conditions, promising pain relief, lifelong health, and even in some cases the prospect of life after death to anyone “open-minded” enough to pay for non-standard treatment. Modern-day mystics have at their disposal a vast and ever-growing arsenal of scientific vocabulary, and employ it liberally in arguing for such practices as quantum healing and energy medicine, variants of which have in recent decades grown into billion dollar industries, supported by millions of consumers. Surely that many people can’t be wrong, can they?

In what follows, we will look at a sample of quantum mechanical vocabulary often invoked by mystics, and contrast the correct scientific meaning of the terms with their usage in the quantum healing community. Quantum Superposition

In a report on her lecture at the European Quantum Energy Medicine Conference in 2008, Mae-Wan Ho, director of the Institute of Science in Society, wrote: “The quantum wave function that describes the coherent organism is a superposition of all possibilities. It implies that the future is entirely open, and the potentials infinite. That’s just what a healthy person should feel like.”1 This may sound like an impressive claim, but what exactly is meant by “superposition of all possibilities”?

Among the more counterintuitive features of quantum theory is its prediction that particles—and sometimes groups of them—can exist in multiple states at once. Hence, while we humans seldom find ourselves both asleep and awake simultaneously, the same cannot be said of the microscopic entities that comprise the quantum world. For instance, it is possible for a subatomic particle, such as an electron, to be bound to two or more different atoms at once; indeed, this arrangement is precisely what is involved in the formation of typical chemical bonds.

As well, electrons and many other subatomic entities may in some contexts be thought of as small rotating spheres. The direction of their rotation is referred to as their “spin”. An electron, for example, may spin clockwise or counterclockwise, in which case it is respectively referred to as occupying the “spin up” or “spin down” states. Remarkably, the electron may also spin in both directions simultaneously. Loosely speaking, one might think of such an electron as possessing some clockwise spin character, and some counterclockwise spin character.

To understand this apparent impossibility, it may be useful to draw a concrete analogy. Imagine that we can represent quantum states by colors, white corresponding to the spin up state, and black to the spin down state. An electron might be described by the color white, the color black, or any combination thereof—some shade of grey. This shade may be more black than white, or vice-versa, or an exact 50/50 mix of the two colors. A particle or physical system that exists in multiple quantum states simultaneously—like the“grey electron” in our analogy—is said to represent a quantum superposition of these states.

With this in mind, let’s return to Mae-Wan Ho’s use of the term “superposition” and to her conclusion that the “potentials” are infinite and the future “entirely open”, due to the existence of a superposition of states. The term “potential”—ubiquitous physics shorthand for “potential energy”—simply refers to energy stored in a physical system, like the elastic energy of a compressed spring. In quantum theory, the wavefunction (a mathematical object that describes a physical system) is determined by the potential energy, and not the other way around, as Ho seems to imply. Finally, Ho makes no attempt to explain the purported connection between the psychological state of a healthy person, and the “infinite” nature of the “quantum potential”. Instead, she flatly states this connection as fact, without elaboration or evidence.

Observer Effect

How is the observer effect discussed among quantum mystics? As with much of their jargon, it is difficult to find a consistent usage. That said, the following quotation—an excerpt from Deepak Chopra’s 2010 Huffington Post article entitled “Which is Real, the Moon or God?”—is a fairly representative example:2 “The observer is non-local consciousness, and that consciousness collapses its own possibility waves into a measurable event.” What does this mean? In our everyday experience, we are used to the idea that the measurement of any physical quantity invariably gives just one result. When we step on a scale and read the dial, we obtain a single number: a weight. Likewise, if we were to measure the direction in which a spinning top rotates, we would obtain a single result: clockwise or counterclockwise. Curiously, this remains true at the quantum level—even measurements carried out on quantum superpositions yield only one outcome. If we measure the spin of an electron that is initially rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise simultaneously, we always obtain one of two results: spin up or spin down.

To return to our earlier color analogy, this means that a grey electron, despite being part white and part black, will be found to be either white or black upon measurement. It is as if the electron, having originally spun in two directions at once, is forced to “choose” one direction over the other for the purpose of the measurement. In some sense, it is polarized from its initial grey state to a pure black or white state. And, it turns out, the darker the electron’s initial shade of grey, the more likely it is to yield the “black” result upon measurement.

Some therefore suggest that the measurement process itself leads to the destruction—or collapse— of superpositions, and their replacement by a single quantum state. In our analogy, this would correspond to replacing a grey electron with a black or white one.3 This apparent connection between the measurement process and the collapse of quantum superpositions is sometimes referred to as the observer effect. In essence, it is said, the observer can induce a physical system to collapse into a single state simply by measuring it.

How does this understanding square with Deepak Chopra’s claim that “the observer is nonlocal consciousness, and that consciousness collapses its own possibility waves into a measurable event”? That an observer might constitute a “non-local consciousness” is at best an ambiguous claim, and at worst reflects a profound misunderstanding of the observer effect. As we have seen, the true definition of the observer effect makes no reference to the nature of the observing entity. It need not necessarily be a conscious person; it can be an unconscious machine.4 The role that might be played by “non-locality” with respect to consciousness in this case is also unclear. This expression seems to simply have been misused—a remarkable achievement given the frequency with which it appears in Chopra’s writing.


Noah McKay, quantum healer and author of Wellness at Warp Speed, invokes the concept of nonlocality in a medical context, as follows: “Non-local, invisible, energetic interactions with the body include everything from ECG [electrocardiograms], CT [X-ray computed tomography] and MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] scans to Qi-Gong, prayer, and psychic healing.”5

It may be somewhat surprising to learn that the MRI and CT scans to which many of us have been subjected operate by “non-local…energetic interactions with the body.” Indeed it should, because it is not true. So what is locality?

Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity tell us a lot about our universe. Among the myriad of fascinating and counter-intuitive features of relativity theory is the fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, including the very forces of nature. As a consequence, two objects sufficiently far away from each other have no way of interacting—and cannot feel one another’s presence— until enough time has passed for light from one object to reach the other.

The sun, for example, is about 93 million miles away from Earth. Since light travels at around 11 million miles per minute, this means that it takes the sun’s rays about eight minutes to reach us. As a result, according to relativity theory, it takes a full eight minutes for us to feel any effect that the sun may have on our planet—including its gravity. So, if the sun were to disappear now, it would take eight minutes for the sky to blacken around us. Our planet would even continue in its regular orbit for eight minutes, before being ultimately flung out into the cosmic darkness.

The sun therefore has a near-immediate impact only on its local surroundings: the further an object is from the sun, the longer it takes for it to be influenced by the state of solar affairs. We therefore refer to relativity as a local theory, since it does not allow objects separated by a significant distance to interact instantaneously. What, then, does it mean for an effect to be non-local?

In short, any effect that propagates instantaneously, and which is therefore not limited by the speed of light, is said to be non-local. Now returning to McKay’s statement, it is worth noting that ECGs, CT scans, and MRI all operate by measuring electromagnetic fields, whose effects propagate no faster than the speed of light. There is nothing nonlocal about these phenomena. It is also not clear what McKay means by the “non-locality” of “Qi- Gong, prayer, and psychic healing,” as the concept would appear to have no relevance whatsoever to meditation or related practices.

Quantum Entanglement

Fred Garcia, founder and Medical Director of Quantum Medical Associates, a Los Angeles-based alternative medicine clinic, gives his account of the discovery of quantum entanglement—and its purported healthcare implications—in the following excerpt from his clinic’s webpage:6 “The quantum entanglement of body, mind & spirit was proven almost 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinzer [sic], Werner Heisenberg, Neils Boar [sic] & Wolfgang Pauli.”

As a point of historical fact, quantum entanglement was first discussed by Einstein, Podolski and Rosen in 1935, and not by Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Bohr and Pauli as Garcia claims. But what is quantum entanglement? Quantum entanglement simply describes a correlation between two or more particles, or groups of particles. Recall our spinning electrons: it is possible for two electrons to be spin-correlated in such a way as to make the total spin of the pair zero. In this case, to use our color analogy, if the electrons’ spins are measured, one electron will be white (spin-up), and the other black (spin-down). This pair of electrons would appear grey overall, since it is composed of one white and one black electron. When measured, one electron of the pair will be found to be black and the other white. As a result, if we find electron 1 to be black, we know electron 2 to be white, and vice-versa. But we cannot know which electron is which until we actually make a spin measurement. For this reason, the individual electrons themselves remain grey until measured.

The result is that a measurement of one electron’s spin will force both to collapse out of their grey superposition into opposite—black and white— states. By measuring the spin state of one electron, we have effectively measured its partner simultaneously. Notice that in so doing we collapsed the second electron out of its initial grey state without ever having interacted with it directly—electron 2 is collapsed because of a measurement executed on electron 1. Electrons whose spins are correlated in this way are said to be entangled.

This collapse effect must also be instantaneous; the moment we measure one electron’s spin, its partner immediately collapses out of its grey state, and assumes an opposite spin direction. These electrons might, in principle, be separated by a great distance at the time of the measurement, so the measurement of our electron’s spin must have a non-local effect on its partner. It is precisely this phenomenon that was so famously described by Albert Einstein as “spooky action-at-a-distance.” But this has nothing whatsoever to do with Garcia’s notions of “mind and spirit.” Entanglement simply represents correlations that can be observed between physical systems.

In addition, before entanglement could be “proven” between the body, mind and spirit, one would first need to demonstrate the existence of the mind and spirit. If this feat were ever to be accomplished, you would not likely be reading about it for the first time on a relatively obscure quantum healing website.


In a 2013 Huffington Post article entitled, “Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity,” Deepak Chopra asserts: “Among many other things, complementarity tells a physicist why two particles separated by vast distances in space manage to act instantaneously together, as if they were next to each other, communicating with each other. By implication this seemingly technical term also applies to two neurons talking to each other far apart in the human brain, and indeed to all biological systems.”7

Let’s define complementarity to see if this makes sense. Imagine that you are shown a photograph of a baseball just released from a pitcher’s hand. You are asked to determine where the ball will be one second after the picture was taken. What would you need to know about the baseball to answer correctly? In our day-to-day classical world, we need to know two things about an object in order to predict its future trajectory: the position of the object at some earlier time (in this example, at the time the photograph was taken) and the object’s speed—or, more appropriately, its momentum—at that same earlier time. Position and momentum together can be used to provide a complete description of a classical object’s trajectory through space. It is in this sense that they may be thought of as complementary quantities.

However, when we enter the sub-microscopic scale of the quantum world, a funny thing happens: we find that notions of particle “position” and “momentum” quickly become murky and difficult to define. As it turns out, it is impossible to know with certainty the position or momentum of a sub-atomic particle. Further complicating matters, the higher the degree of precision with which we measure a particle’s position, the lower our certainty will be about its momentum. Consequently, the more we know about the particle’s momentum, the less we can know about its position. This trade-off is sometimes referred to as the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.

Skeptic magazine 20.1 (cover)

This article appeared Skeptic magazine 20.1 in 2015.
Order the back issue.

So the principle of complementarity comes down to this: in order to get a complete understanding of the state of a physical system, it is necessary to have complete information about a pair of complementary properties, such as position and momentum. However, the uncertainty principle prevents us from measuring complementary properties simultaneously at the sub-atomic level, so we must be content with a limited state of knowledge with respect to any physical system we may wish to study.

We are now in a position to see that Chopra’s description of complementarity has little, if anything, to do with its actual meaning. Chopra appears to have confused two of quantum mechanics’ foundational concepts: the principle of complementarity and the notion of quantum entanglement. He goes on to suggest that this principle must somehow apply to neurons, brains, and biological organisms. This assertion constitutes a remarkable leap in logic, particularly given that quantum entanglement has never been demonstrated between biological systems.

The Quantum Cure

The rise of quantum mysticism has exploited a fatal flaw in human reasoning, which may be partly to blame for our species’ broader superstitious bent. Unfortunately, we all too often assume that ideas which lie beyond our immediate intellectual reach must somehow be mutually supportive, or connected in some way. No real progress is made when we choose to explain one mystery by another. END

  1. Ho, Mae-Wan. 2008. “Quantum Coherent Liquid Crystalline Organism.The Institute of Science in Society. 1 Oct. Web. 1 July 2014.
  2. Chopra, Deepak. 2010. “Which Is Real, the Moon or God?”, 22 March.
  3. This is the perspective adopted by proponents of the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, but remains a matter of heated debate among physicists today. As a result, the observer effect remains highly controversial, and has led many to advocate for alternative formulations of quantum mechanics, many of which have gained significant traction. The Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is one such perspective.
  4. The exact definition of the “observer” is unclear and inconsistent to this day, even among adherents to the popular Copenhagen Interpretation. Different interpretational perspectives (eg. Decoherence, Many Worlds and Bohmian quantum mechanics) explain the apparent “collapse” of quantum superpositions without appealing to the existence of observers at all.
  5. McKay, Noah. 2014. Dr. Noah’s Wellness Seminars.
  6. Garcia, Fred. 2013. “Quantum Medicine.New Age Medicine. Quantum Medical Associates, 1 Jan. 2013.
  7. Chopra, Deepak. 2013. “Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity.”, 29 April.
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New Facts Concerning Goddard Squadron Photo

This post continues Blake’s exploration of the “Goddard’s Squadron Ghost” photo. Read his first post on the topic, “Should Goddard’s Squadron Drop Dead Fred?” (published February 2, 2015).
Photo of squadron allegedly including the ghost of Freddy Jackson.

Squadron photo allegedly showing the ghost of Freddy Jackson.

I’m no scientist. I sometimes wish I were, but at the end of the day I’m merely an enthusiast who tries to use scientific methodology in my daily life whenever it is appropriate to do so. One aspect of science which I am keenly aware of is that it is self-correcting. When evidence appears which is contrary to the hypothesis one is testing, science demands that the new evidence be accounted for and that if the evidence is sound, the hypothesis must be amended or discarded.

A few months ago I shared my research on the Freddie Jackson “ghost” photo (aka Goddard’s Squadron Ghost). I have been looking into the history of this photo for some time, and with the databases I was using to search for the existence of Freddie Jackson, I did not find evidence that such a person existed. But, to my delight, a reader of that article reached out to me and he had found the very proof I had been looking for. So, to answer my own question on the matter, should we drop dead Fred? Apparently, the answer is “no.” There really was a Freddie Jackson in the RAF whose personal details parallel elements of the Goddard/Capel story.


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eSkeptic for July 29, 2015


These following lectures and events were recorded on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at the Skeptics Society’s conference In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity. Until September 23, 2015, you can watch these events for only $1.95 each. So, act now, and enjoy these videos and many more. Rent all videos in the series for less than $1 per video, during our Vimeo On Demand Summer Sale, which ends Sept. 23, 2015.

Mistakes Made by People and Nations that Hurt Their Futures
Jared Diamond

UCLA Professor of Geography Jared Diamond, author of the the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with The Third Chimpanzee, Collapse, and The World Until Yesterday, considers the risks and mistakes that people and nations make. Based on his extensive research on and experience with the human condition Dr. Diamond considers the future based on what we know about the past—historically and personally.

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The Future of Human Health & Longevity
Esther Dyson (photo by Seth Fisher)

The renowned computer analyst, journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur discusses her latest project called HICCup and its Way to Wellville in which five places over five years will be measured with five metrics related to the production of the health of people living there, and considers how what they’ve learned may be applied elsewhere.

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Mathemagics & the Future of Math
Art Benjamin

The world’s greatest lightning calculator entertains the audience with a dazzling display of mental math, and along the way shows how anyone can learn the techniques he employs to improve their math literacy. This is one of the most entertaining performances ever given at Caltech.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Are We All Potentially Evil? A new dramatic film based on the Stanford Prison Experiment reveals why good people turn bad. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses the film, the original experiment by Philip Zimbardo, and the triad of general principles behind evil posited by Zimbardo: the Person, the Situation, and the System.

This article was originally published on on July 27, 2015, and also on today.

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of The Moral Arc. His previous books include: The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil.

Are We All Potentially Evil?
A new dramatic film based on the Stanford Prison Experiment reveals why good people turn bad

by Michael Shermer

The barbaric acts of ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere (including lone wolf acts here and in Europe) have renewed the use of an adjective most commonly affiliated with Nazis—evil. In fact, British Prime Minister David Cameron evoked Hitler in his recent speech outlining a five year plan to combat Islamic extremism, starting with the acknowledgment that it is an ideology, and “Like so many ideologies that have existed before—whether fascist or communist—many people, especially young people, are being drawn to it. So we need to understand why it is proving so attractive.” Another way to say it is this: why do good people turn bad?


Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course or has ever glanced at the scientific literature on the psychology of evil is familiar with Philip Zimbardo’s now-famous experiment conducted in a make-shift prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University in August, 1971, in which the social psychologist randomly assigned 24 student volunteers to be either guards or prisoners. The experiment was to last two weeks but Zimbardo had to terminate it after six days when these intelligent and educated young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners. Not a formal experiment per se—with control and experimental groups for comparison—a flip of a coin to determine whether a student subject would be assigned to play guard or prisoner allows us to draw conclusions about the power of the situation to effect similar people dissimilarly.


Over the decades much has been written about the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), both in scholarly journals and in popular publications, and a number of documentaries have been made using archival footage shot by Zimbardo’s team. But now for the first time a major motion picture has been produced by IFC Films, directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez and written by Tim Talbott, with script consultation by Zimbardo and based on the transcripts of the dialogue between guards and prisoners reprinted in his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. (Order the book from Amazon or Watch the lecture now, on Vimeo on Demand.) Unlike most filmic reenactments of real-life events in which considerable poetic license is taken to punch up the drama, none is needed for this film because the subjects themselves produced enough gravitas to keep the narrative arc moving toward its shattering conclusion. The tight-space cinematography well captures the claustrophobic nature of the faux basement prison, the editing and music pulls the audience into the prison cells and connecting hallway, and the coarse and profanity strewn dialogue (all real) shows the thin patina of civility covering the potential incivility that lies within even the most well-balanced psychologically healthy middle-class white college students (Zimbardo had them all tested for normalcy before the experiment began). If you, like most people (myself included) think “I would never do such a thing to another human being”, see this film and think again. The evidence from the SPE and research since indicates otherwise—the potential for evil is in all of us.


In this sense The Stanford Prison Experiment engages us on both emotional and intellectual levels to consider the nature of good and evil from a scientific perspective, In brief, as outlined in my 2015 book The Moral Arc, the dispositional theory holds that evil is the result of bad dispositions in some people (a few bad apples), whereas the situational theory holds that evil is the product of corrupting circumstances (bad barrels that corrupt apples). The dispositional theory of evil is the one most commonly embraced by religion (original sin), medicine (internal disease), psychiatry (mental illness), and the law (personal culpability), whereas the situational theory of evil is more conventionally invoked by social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists sensitive to the diversity and power of environments to shape human behavior.

In point of fact both of these theories contain an element of truth: by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act. That is, we all have the capacity to commit evil deeds, but the expression of such acts very much depends on circumstances and conditions. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed in The Gulag Archipelago:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

In my model of morality, our dual dispositional nature of good and evil arose from our evolutionary history as a social primate species practicing within-group amity and between-group enmity. In order to survive as individuals we must get along with our fellow in-group members, and this led to the evolution of such moral emotions as empathy, cooperation, and trust. These pro-social tendencies gave us a good disposition. But because of the very real threat that strangers posed in the environment of our evolutionary ancestry natural selection also shaped us to have such emotions as xenophobia, competitiveness, and violence. These anti-social tendencies gave us an evil disposition.


When I entered a graduate program in experimental psychology in the late 1970s Philip Zimbardo was already a legend. In an extensive interview I conducted with him in 2007 while researching my book The Mind of the Market (summarized here), Zimbardo explained how he became interested in this dark subject. Born in the south Bronx and raised in poverty by uneducated Sicilian parents, Zimbardo saw first hand the bleaker side of humanity, expressed when people find themselves in impoverished environments with unenforced laws and openly expressed distrust. As a young professor just recently hired by Stanford University, he returned to his old haunts to set up an experiment to see what would happen to an apparently abandoned vehicle left there, compared to one parked on the streets of the upscale neighborhood of Stanford’s Palo Alto. In the Bronx, the car started being stripped before the research team could finish setting up their hidden cameras. In only one day there were 23 assaults on the helpless automobile. In Palo Alto, by contrast, the car went untouched until Zimbardo finally gave up and drove it back to campus, at which time three neighbors called the police to report an abandoned car was being stolen. Such a striking difference cannot be the result of differential dispositions between New Yorkers and Californians. Quite obviously the difference was in the neighborhoods. What were those differences?


This is the question Zimbardo set out to answer in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. To add to the realism, the students assigned to be prisoners were arrested at home by members of the local Police Department, were brought to the prison in squad cars, then were sprayed for lice and forced to stand naked during orientation before they were finally given drab prison garb and crammed into 6-by-9 foot cells. For their part, the guards were given clubs, whistles, keys to the prison cells, and mirrored sunglasses (“an idea I got from the film Cool Hand Luke,” Zimbardo explained). Over the next couple of days these psychologically well-adjusted students were transformed into either the role of violent, authoritative guards or demoralized, impassive prisoners. The experiment was to last for two weeks. Zimbardo’s girlfriend at the time (now his wife of nearly 40 years), Christina Maslach, after seeing the guards abusing the prisoners during their late night toilet run—with bagged heads and chained ankles—insisted that Zimbardo end it before someone was seriously hurt (“She told me she wouldn’t marry me if I was the sort of person who would allow such a thing to happen” he recalled). At that moment he realized that he had become part of the experiment in the role of prison superintendent. “I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard,” he explained in the technical write up of the experiment, “but because of the horror of realizing that I could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard or become the weakest prisoner full of hatred at being so powerless that I could not eat, sleep, or go to the toilet without permission of authorities.”

I asked Zimbardo how he views the experience decades later. “The message of my little Stanford Prison Experiment is that situations can have a more powerful influence over our behavior than most people appreciate and few people recognize,” he began. “Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that most people hold that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual—in their genes, their brains, their essence—and that there are good apples and there are bad apples.” But, I rejoined, there are bad apples, no? Yes, of course, Zimbardo conceded the point, but the vast majority of evil in the world is not committed by those few bad apples; instead, it is ordinary people doing extraordinary things under certain circumstances. Zimbardo prefers to err on the side of granting people the benefit of the doubt. “Before we blame individuals, the charitable thing to do is to first find out what situations they were in that might have provoked this evil behavior. Why not assume that these are good apples in a bad barrel, rather than bad apples in a good barrel?”

How can we tell the difference between good and bad apples, and between good and bad barrels, I pressed? “When I launched my experiment at Stanford we knew these students were good apples because we gave them a battery of tests—personality tests, clinical interviews, we checked their background, etc., and every one of them was normal. Then we randomly assigned them to be guards or prisoners. So, on day one they were all good apples. Yet within days, the guards were transformed into sadistic thugs and the prisoners were emotionally broken.” Zimbardo’s bad barrel turned good apples rotten.


The Stanford Prison Experiment film stays in its time period and offers little in the way of deeper reflection on its meaning, but what pushed Zimbardo to finally write a deep analysis of what he discovered was the atrocities at Abu Ghraib that came to light in 2003. The shocking photographs reminded him of the SPE. “Believe me,” he told me, “what we have all seen on television is just the tip of the iceberg. The abuses were much worse than you can imagine when you see all of the uncensored photographs.” He shared some of these photographs with me and it’s true—these uncensored scenes almost beggar description. You wince when you see them. How could the people who did this not embody pure evil? It depends on what we mean by evil. Zimbardo defines it in The Lucifer Effect thusly: “Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.” More succinctly, and incorporating room for free will and moral culpability, evil is “knowing better but doing worse.”

When the Abu Ghraib story broke it wasn’t long before the media made the same connection to the Stanford Prison Experiment that its Principle Investigator had, and Zimbardo soon found himself on NPR and other media outlets to discuss the similarities. Shortly thereafter he was contacted by one of the attorneys representing Staff Sergeant Ivan “Chip” Frederick, the military policeman in charge of the night shift on Tiers 1A and 1B, the most abusive cellblocks in that most abusive of Iraqi prisons. Without denying Frederick’s culpability in the Abu Ghraib abuses (Frederick admitted his own guilt), Zimbardo wanted to go deeper to explore the environment that enabled the torture, abuse, and humiliation of the prisoners there. Zimbardo did not so much defend Frederick as implicate the chain of command above Frederick with complicity in the crime. Zimbardo agreed that Frederick should have been punished for his actions, but the punishment should fit the crime and we should hold accountable Frederick’s superiors who enabled or even encouraged such abuses. Instead, those who fashioned the environment in which Frederick acted walked free while Frederick was given an eight-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth (he was released after four years).


Research psychologists typically employ what is known as an A-B-A experimental protocol, that is, pre-testtestpost-test. Pre- and post-test comparisons with the behaviors during the test allow us to tease out causal variables. In this model, Zimbardo told me that before he went to Iraq, Chip Frederick was an all-American patriot, “a regular church-going kind of guy who raises the American flag in front of his home each day, gets goose bumps and tears up when he listens to our National Anthem, believes in American values of democracy and freedom, and joined the army to defend those values.” Frederick, in fact, was a model soldier, earning numerous awards, including the Army Achievement Medal three times, the Army Reserve Components Medal four times, the National Defense Medal twice, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, and others. He was about to receive a coveted Bronze Star when the Abu Ghraib abuse story broke. After the story broke about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo arranged for a military clinical psychologist to conduct a full psychological assessment of Frederick through a battery of tests, as well as bringing Frederick and his wife, Martha, to San Francisco in order to better know the person behind the MP uniform.


The psychological assessments of Frederick indicated that he was by all counts a perfectly normal guy, average in intelligence, average in personality, with “no sadistic or pathological tendencies,” and with only one outlier trait: “Validity scales indicate the patient presented himself as a morally virtuous individual.” To Zimbardo, these results “strongly suggest that the ‘bad apple’ dispositional attribution of blame made against him by military and administration apologists has no basis in fact.” After he was convicted Frederick penned a letter to Zimbardo from prison in which he confessed (in The Lucifer Effect): “I am proud to say that I served most of my adult life for my country. I was very prepared to die for my country, my family and friends. I wanted to be the one to make a difference.”

In the A-B-A model, before Abu Ghraib Chip Frederick was normal. At Abu Ghraib he was abnormal. After Abu Ghraib he was once again normal. What does this tell us? “There is absolutely nothing in his record that I was able to uncover that would predict that Chip Frederick would engage in any form of abusive, sadistic behavior,” Zimbardo concluded. “On the contrary, there is much in his record to suggest that had he not been forced to work and live in such an abnormal situation, he might have been the military’s All-American poster soldier on its recruitment ads.”

Pulling back from this specific case to the general principles behind evil, Zimbardo posits a triad of factors—the Person, the Situation, and the System—and how together and in interaction with one another they can lead a good person to perform evil acts. Here we see an integration of the dispositional theory of evil (the Person), the situational theory of evil (the Situation), and a third component Zimbardo only added after his investigation of Abu Ghraib—the larger context in which the person and situation co-exist (the System). “When I was reading the reports about Abu Ghraib I wanted to know who creates these situations that enables evil?” he recalled in our interview. “The system is the bigger barrel: legal, economic, historical, political forces that gives these situations legitimacy. And most systems have a shield so that there is no transparency. Top politicians like Bush and Cheney have to cater to particular voters and donors, and those voters and donors will be part of a political or religious or corporate system that enables them to say, in essence, if you want our votes or our dollars, you have to go along with what we believe.”


Wait, I wonder aloud. Does this mean that everyone from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the top to Chip Frederick and Lynndie England at the bottom are absolved of responsibility? Does explanation equal exoneration? Sensing my unease at the implications of where all this science leads, Zimbardo quickly rejoined: “What happened at Abu Ghraib was inexcusable, but it was not inexplicable. I cannot repeat this caveat enough: to explain something is not to excuse it.” He recalled an incident in Washington D.C. when he was testifying in another matter when he was accused of being an “excuseologist.” The label stung. “We’re not excusing anything. We’re scientists who, like all scientists, want to understand the cause of things, in this case evil behavior.”

Watching The Stanford Prison Experiment film you will be tempted—as I was—to moralize about the accursed guards and sympathize with the guiltless prisoners. Such is the power of a good film. But after your moral emotions subside think like a scientist and consider why good people turn bad, and what we can all do to prevent future evils. END

The Apostate

Would anyone knowingly join a religion with a draconian apostacy clause? I don’t think so.


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eSkeptic for July 22, 2015

Donald Prothero
A New Ice Age? No, Bad Journalism Run Amok

Donald Prothero reveals that headlines about a "coming ice age" are just so much hot air.

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Rupert Sheldrake & Michael Shermer

Since May, has hosted an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer.

The entire dialogue is now available online, and includes discussions on: Materialism in Science, Mental Action at a Distance, and God and Science.

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Hello Reality

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Fine-Tuning and the Multiverse

For years theologians and Christian apologists have convinced themselves and their followers that they have a knock-out scientific argument for the existence of God. They claim that the parameters of physics are so finely tuned that if any one of these parameters were just slightly different in value, then life would not be possible anywhere in the universe.

The solution to the fine-tuning problem that is regarded as the most plausible by physicists and cosmologists is that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of individual, uncreated universes collectively called the multiverse that extend for an unlimited distance in all directions and for an unlimited time in the past and future. We just happen to live in the particular universe that is suited for our kind of life. Our universe is not fine-tuned for us; we are fine-tuned to our universe.

In this essay, as a follow-up to his book, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us (in which he showed that, based on our knowledge of this universe alone, divine fine-tuning claims are without merit), Victor J. Stenger brings the arguments up-to-date with a discussion of the eternal multiverse hypothesis. This article was published in Skeptic magazine issue 19.3 in 2014.

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