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From the Skeptical Literature: Thomas Ady on the Role of Mental Illness in Witchcraft Confessions (1655)

Thomas Ady was an English doctor and critical exposer of both persecutions for alleged witchcraft and the type of faux-paranormal scams, such as fortunetelling, that sometimes led to witchcraft trials. He was especially critical of the use of torture (including sleep deprivation1) in those trials. But some victims of witch trials confessed without coercion. Ady reflected on those poor souls as follows:

Some indeed have in a melancholly distraction of minde confessed voluntarily, yea and accused themselves to bee Witches, that could do, and had done such strange things, and wonders by the help of the Devil; but mark well their distemper, and you shall finde that they are deeply gone by infirmity of body affecting the minde, whereby they conceit such things as never were, or can be, as is often proved by experience among Physicians, many of those dying in a very short time, (although they be not put to death) except they be cured by the Physician; and truly if such Doctrins had not been taught to such people formerly, their melancholly distempers had not had any such objects to work upon, but who shall at last answer for their confession, but they that have infected the mindes of common people with such devillish doctrins, whereby some are instigated to accuse their poor Neighbours of impossibilities contrary to the Scriptures, and some drawn to confess lyes, and impossibilities contrary to Christian light?

— Thomas Ady. A Candle in the Dark: Shewing The Divine Cause of the Distractions of the whole Nation of England, and of the Christian World. (1655)2


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Video: TAM 2013 Panel on the Scope and Mission of Scientific Skepticism

Panel discussion on stage

Steven Novella, Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss sitting on the “Skeptical Scope and Mission” panel discussion at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference (July 11–14, 2013) in Las Vegas.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has begun to move video content from their Amazing Meeting 2013 conference onto YouTube.

I was honored that year to join in a panel discussion with magician Jamy Ian Swiss, Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe host Steven Novella, and INSIGHT’s own Barbara Drescher, with Doubtful News creator Sharon Hill serving as moderator. The topic—the question of the “scope” of scientific skepticism—was an old one. But the conversation that emerged on stage may (in my opinion) be one of the most serious, positive, and forward-looking discussions this topic has received in years.

I was tremendously gladdened by that. I’ve often written about the focus, utility, and moral value of scientific skepticism. See for example my 2007 op-ed “Where Do We Go From Here?” (PDF), 2013 historical exploration “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF), or my 2014 speech “A Rare and Beautiful Thing” (read the text or watch the video).

It’s important to me. Important personally.


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History Channel’s Vikings and the Mystical Land of England

Ragnar's army charges into battle

On the History Channel series Vikings, Ragnar’s army charges into battle. Photo by Bernard Walsh/HISTORY. Copyright 2014

Have you ever watched a movie or a television show with someone who nitpicks tiny little things? You know, the guy who bitterly complains that a car parked halfway down the street wasn’t in production until 1956 even though the show is set in 1955? We all know that guy. We all hate that guy. And occasionally, we all are that guy. Today I’m going to be that guy.

history_logo1I’ve finally watched the first season of History’s Vikings, written by Michael Hirst. From time to time, friends who know that I studied Old Norse and that I enjoy all things Viking have asked me if I’d seen it, but I was wary because I knew it would annoy me. This is the History Channel after all, the people who gave us Ancient Aliens. Despite my wariness, I did try to watch it a few months ago. It annoyed me. The shifting accents—sometimes thick, sometimes barely existent—annoyed me. The stupidest hairstyles in the history of hair annoyed me. And, above all, the constant smirking of protagonist Ragnar Smirky-Breeches annoyed me. Okay, it’s actually Ragnar Lothbrok (Loðbrók) or “Hairy-Breeches,” but his breeches aren’t hairy, and he does smirk. A lot.

So I gave up for a bit, but recently I tried again, and I have really tried to appreciate it. I do appreciate that Hirst seems to have used some recognizable medieval sources, such as Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (for many of the characters); Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Rus (for the Vikings’ disgusting washing ritual in episode 2 and for Earl Haraldson’s ship funeral. Both scenes will be familiar to anyone who’s seen The 13th Warrior); and Adam of Bremen’s third-hand account of the pagan temple at Uppsala. I also enjoy hearing occasional snippets of Old Norse and Old English.


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Join Steven Pinker, Michael Shermer, and Special Guests for a dinner evening, and wine tasting event

Michael Shermer's dining room

In conjunction with the annual fundraising drive for the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit science education organization, Michael and Jennifer Shermer are hosting a dinner, wine tasting, and star party at their home in the mountains of Altadena, just up the hill from Caltech. Cost is $600/plate. $550 of the $600 donation is deductible. Your donation guarantees you a front-row seat in Baxter Lecture Hall for Pinker’s 2pm talk (see lecture details in the lecture announcement below), plus a signed copy of his new book, A Sense of Style. You will have a spectacular sunset view of all of Southern California from their cliffside home, and enjoy viewing Mars, Saturn, and the moon through their 8-inch Meade telescope that night. Good cause, good fun. Reserve your seat online with a minimum $600 donation and join us! For more information, please call our office at 1-626-794-3119.

Donate now
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See Two Distinguished Science Lectures October 4th and 5th:
Dr. Steven Pinker (Saturday) and
Dr. Marcelo Gleiser (Sunday)

Dr. Steven Pinker (photo by Rebecca Goldstein)
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide
to Writing in the 21st Century
PLEASE NOTE: This lecture is on a different day than usual.
It is on a Saturday.

SATURDAY, Oct. 4 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

WHY IS SO MUCH WRITING SO BAD, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do people write badly on purpose, to obfuscate and impress? Have dictionaries abandoned their responsibility to safeguard correct usage? Do kids today even care about good writing? In his latest book the Harvard linguist, cognitive scientist, bestselling author (The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature) and chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, Dr. Steven Pinker, answers these questions and more. Pinker applies insights from the sciences of language and mind to the challenge of crafting clear, coherent, and stylish prose. Filled with examples of great and gruesome modern prose, The Sense of Style shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right, that is also informed by science. Order The Sense of Style from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

LECTURE-ONLY TICKETS FOR STEVEN PINKER: First come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses. For a front row seat, an autographed book, and the dinner event at Michael Shermer’s home, the cost is $600, and should be reserved online in advance via the donation link above.

LECTURE, BOOK, AND DINNER EVENT TICKETS FOR STEVEN PINKER: For a front row seat, an autographed book, and the dinner event at Michael Shermer’s home, the cost is $600, and should be reserved online in advance.

Dr. Marcelo Gleiser (photo b Gil Inoue)
Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science & the Search for Meaning

SUNDAY, Oct. 5 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

DO ALL QUESTIONS HAVE ANSWERS? How much can we know about the world? Is there such a thing as an ultimate truth? To be human is to want to know, but what we are able to observe is only a tiny portion of what’s “out there.” In The Island of Knowledge, Dartmouth College astronomer and physicist Dr. Marcelo Gleiser traces our search for answers to the most fundamental questions of existence. In so doing, he reaches a provocative conclusion: science, the main tool we use to find answers, is fundamentally limited. These limits to our knowledge arise both from our tools of exploration and from the nature of physical reality: the speed of light, the uncertainty principle, the impossibility of seeing beyond the cosmic horizon, the incompleteness theorem, and our own limitations as an intelligent species. Recognizing limits in this way, Gleiser argues, is not a deterrent to progress or a surrendering to religion. Rather, it frees us to question the meaning and nature of the universe while affirming the central role of life and ourselves in it. Science can and must go on, but recognizing its limits reveals its true mission: to know the universe is to know ourselves. Order The Island of Knowledge from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

TICKETS FOR MARCELO GLEISER: First come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $10 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $15 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

INSIGHT at banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Daniel Loxton
Welcome to INSIGHT at

Daniel Loxton introduces the Skeptics Society’s brand new group blog, INSIGHT at, and invites people from all walks of life to share in the spirit of curiosity.

Blake Smith
Hello, World!

MonsterTalk’s Blake Smith reflects on the daunting, cheerful thrill of bringing something new into the world.

Mike McRae
Brand Name Science

Mike McRae reflects that while advertising a brand is par for the course when selling merchandise, selling science is not quite the same thing. Is it? READ THE POST

Eugenie Scott
Who Needs It? (Science and Critical Thinking, That Is)

In a guest post, Eugenie Scott welcomes the creation of the Skeptics Society’s new INSIGHT blog, and argues that science and critical thinking are for everyone. READ THE POST

Jim Lippard
What is organized skepticism good for, and does it matter?

Jim Lippard discusses the birth of the modern skeptical movement, and introduces some of the questions he plans to ask about the successes, shortcomings, and conceptual foundations for that ongoing project. READ THE POST

Donald Prothero
“Proof of Heaven”?

Donald Prothero explains that while Dr. Eben Alexander claims that he visited heaven while in a coma, awkward details cast serious doubt on his story. READ THE POST

Michael Shermer
The Fifth Horseman: The Insights of Victor Stenger (1935–2014)

Michael Shermer reflects on the life and skepticism of physicist Victor Stenger. READ THE POST

Barbara Drescher
Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

Barbara Drescher tells the story of a very smart man who made a very stupid decision, and digs into the difference between “intelligence” and “rationality.” READ THE POST

Ani Aharonian
Misplaced Objects: How We Hide Things from Ourselves

Ani Aharonian wonders where the heck her passport might have gone—and reflects on the psychology of misplacing objects as a result of intentional placement.

Jim Lippard
Gerald Larue Dies at Age 98

Jim Lippard remembers University of Southern California religion and gerontology professor emeritus Gerald A. Larue, who passed away last Wednesday.

MonsterTalk logo
MonsterTalk # 89

In this episode of MonsterTalk, Blake conducts a pop-culture interview with historian Scott Poole on the first monstrous horror movie host, Vampira (Maila Nurmi). His new book is Vampira, Dark Goddess of Horror.

Gerald Larue with funny wig

Gerald Alexander Larue, Senior (1916–2014) showing his zany side last summer, wearing a wig and hippie glasses that his son, David, put on him. (Images herein courtesy of David Knight Larue)

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, David Knight Larue remembers one of the pioneers of the modern skeptical movement: his father, Gerald Alexander Larue, Senior, who passed away on September 17, 2014 at the age of 98.

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Farewell to a Skeptic Pioneer
Gerald Alexander Larue, Senior (1916–2014)

by David K. Larue

From Pastor to Atheist Scholar and Ethical Humanist

One of the pioneers of the modern skeptical movement, Dr. Gerald Alexander Larue (June 20, 1916 — September 17, 2014) —emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California—died Wednesday, September 17th, from a stroke associated with a gastro-intestinal bleeding event. He was 98 years old and lived a long full and happy life to the end, just as he encouraged others to do through the joy of the humanistic worldview.

Dr. Laure received Bachelor of Art and Bachelor of Divinity degrees from the University of Edmonton in Canada where he began his career as a minister with the United Church of Canada; he served pastorates in Canada and the United States from 1945 to 1953. He later moved to California to pursue a Doctor of Theology degree at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley. While in undergraduate and graduate school, professors cheerfully called him “Heretic Larue,” which turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. In 1958, he accepted a professorship at the University of Southern California in the School of Religion. His textbook Old Testament Life and Literature was widely distributed and benefited from his numerous archaeological studies in the Near East. His focus in religious studies was differentiating folk tales, myth and legend from fact that could be substantiated, especially using archaeological studies.

Gerald A. Larue

As part of the free thought movement, Larue published books on Sex in the Bible, The Supernatural, The Occult and the Bible, and other scholarly studies in which stories and perceptions from the Bible were compared to known fact. Because he constantly challenged the literal interpretation of the Bible, humanist groups became interested in his work. Here was a man, widely regarded as an atheist, who was a former practicing minister, an archaeologist and true Bible scholar! In return, Dr. Larue worked more closely with humanist groups, his books exploring concepts such as The Way of Ethical Humanism and The Way of Positive Humanism. Death with dignity became a subject of his research, which he summarized in his book Playing God: Fifty Religion’s Views on Your Right to Die. He was the founding president of the Hemlock Society (Death with Dignity) which was created by Derek Humphry.

One of Larue’s most popular adventures was as a co-conspirator to show the shoddy nature of Creationist “scientific research.” It came about when one of Dr. Larue’s friends, George Jammal, made an outrageous and poorly substantiated claim that he had found, intact, the real Noah’s Ark, from which he produced an actual piece of wood. This “discovery” was publicized nationally in a special on CBS without any vetting (Jammal used the pseudonym “Allis Bullshitten,” which was somehow missed by all concerned). A week later, Dr. Larue revealed the nature of the hoax to Time magazine, causing a large round of finger pointing (including at him).

Dr. Larue was also the co-founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Religion, which challenged other poorly substantiated religious miracles, such as pictures showing weeping Madonnas and sightings of the Virgin Mary. He was the author of more than 17 books. He received the Humanist of the year award from the American Humanist Association in 1989.

As a professor at USC, he received awards for his teaching, and was popular with the students. He also was presented with a Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award and the Leibovitz Award. After retiring from the School of Religion, he then taught another 25 years at the School of Gerontology, until retiring at age 90 in 2006, to concentrate on interacting with his granddaughter and two step-grandchildren.

Gerald and Susan

Gerald and his grand-daughter, Susan

He had a devoted and loving family including sons Gerald Alexander Larue, Jr. (deceased), David Knight Larue, grandsons Gerald Alexander Larue 3rd (deceased), Gerald Alexander Larue 4th, and grand-daughter Susan Larue. His extended family includes daughter-in-laws Lisa Larue and Susan Rempel, step-grandchildren Catherine and Jordan Black, and former wives Lois Larue and Emily Perkins. END

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Gerald Larue Dies at Age 98

Portrait of Gerald Larue

University of Southern California religion and gerontology professor emeritus Gerald A. Larue. Image provided by David Knight Larue

The Los Angeles Times noted yesterday evening that University of Southern California religion and gerontology professor emeritus Gerald A. Larue (b. June 20, 1916, d. September 17, 2014) has died at age 98. He was a long-time supporter of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism, heading the latter’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion from its founding in 1983 until handing over the reins to R. Joseph Hoffmann in 2003. Larue was also on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine from its founding in 1992 to its most recent issue.

Larue was the author of numerous books and articles on biblical history and archaeology, criticism of religion, and death and dying. He had been an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, leading congregations from 1945 to 1953. In 1958 he joined the USC faculty as a professor of biblical history and archaeology, and joined the gerontology faculty in 1981, retiring in 2006. From 1980 to 1988, he was the first president of the Hemlock Society, a position he was asked to take after being the only other person at the organizing meeting besides founder Derek Humphry to be willing to join an organization that explicitly argued for the right to assisted suicide.


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Misplaced Objects: How We Hide Things from Ourselves


Image © Sean Hobson, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via

I was excitedly booking airline tickets to Buenos Aires last week when the website prompted me to enter my passport information. “Passport… That’s in the…” But no memory came to mind easily, giving me pause as I tried in vain to recall the now distant memory of returning from my last vacation abroad in an attempt to retrace my steps or thoughts.

Misplacing things is somewhat of a routine annoyance for most of us. The experience is so common that I suspect many of us have more or less accepted that we will spend significant chunks of our lives searching for misplaced objects like mobile phones, keys, glasses, cars, etc. In these more common cases of lost objects, we typically misplace an object inadvertently. This is likely due to inattention. For example, we’re preoccupied with something else at the moment we walk in the door and are not paying attention to where we set down our keys.

These are not the types of misplaced objects I’m going to focus on, though. There is an even more frustrating subclass of misplaced objects: those misplaced as a result of intentional placement.

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The Myth of Mirror Neurons

Dr. Gregory Hickok

IN THIS MYTH-BUSTING TALK based on his new book, U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Gregory Hickok calls for an essential reconsideration of one of the most far-reaching theories in modern neuroscience and psychology. Ever since the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys in 1992 there has been a stream of scientific studies implicating mirror neurons in everything from schizophrenia and drug abuse to sexual orientation and contagious yawning. Drawing on a broad range of observations from work on animal behavior, modern neuroimaging, neurological disorders, and more, Dr. Hickok argues that the foundational assumptions fall flat in light of the facts. He then explores alternative explanations of mirror neuron function while illuminating crucial questions about human cognition and brain function: Why do humans imitate so prodigiously? How different are the left and right hemispheres of the brain? Why do we have two visual systems? Do we need to be able to talk to understand speech? What’s going wrong in autism? Dr. Hickok provides deep insights into the organization and function of the human brain and the nature of communication and cognition. Order The Myth of Mirror Neurons from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

NOTE: Most of the content of this post was included in a talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting in 2013 titled “Why Mensa Will Never Eliminate World Hunger”. It is the first of a series of posts on the difference between intelligence and rationality.
Paul Frampton

Paul Frampton. Image from Wikimedia Commons, used here under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Paul Frampton fell for a “honeytrap”*. A divorced man of 68, he had begun corresponding online with a woman named Denise Milani in November of 2011. Milani was a bikini model in her early 30s. Although he had never spoken with her over the phone or Skype, in January of 2012 he set out to meet her in Bolivia, where she was doing a photo shoot. Two weeks later he was sitting in a jail in Buenos Aries, arrested for transporting two kilos of cocaine into the country.

Here is what happened in a nutshell: Frampton was sent a ticket from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Bolivia, by way of Toronto. When he got to Toronto, he discovered that the ticket for the second leg was invalid. So he waited in Toronto for another ticket. Four days later, he arrived in Bolivia, but Milani was no longer there. She was in Brussels on another photo shoot. She would send him a ticket, but would he mind bringing her a bag she’d left in Bolivia?


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The Fifth Horseman: The Insights of Victor Stenger (1935–2014)

Victor J. Stenger was a particle physicist, philosopher, author, skeptic, and friend. I first came across his name shortly after we founded Skeptic magazine in 1992 when I read his 1990 book Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books), for which “psychic” Uri Geller sued (the case was dismissed and Geller was ordered to pay legal fees of nearly $50,000). Stenger’s 1995 book, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology, was especially helpful to us as we dealt with the burgeoning interest in the topic of quantum consciousness and the New Age fascination with the field as a way of using one of the most well-developed and thoroughly tested fields in all of science to prop up supernatural and paranormal beliefs with sciency sounding terms (the very definition of pseudoscience).

Victor was especially helpful to me in assessing the technical claims of the quantum consciousness proponents, such as those featured in the wildly popular film What the Bleep Do We Know?! It was a well produced film (I saw it in Portland with the producers after we were both on a radio show), but I never imagined it would become the big hit it did, given the esoteric nature of its subject: quantum physics and consciousness. But it had that New Agey uplifting anything-is-possible-if-you-wish-it-so feel. It included a number of talking head physicists, such as University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, who proclaimed: “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.” In my Scientific American column on the film I challenged him to “leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies.”


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“Proof of Heaven”?

proof-of-heavenIt has been two years now since the best-seller lists in the “Non-Fiction” category were dominated by books claiming that the writer visited heaven, and then returned to write a book about it. The most famous was Dr. Eben Alexander’s tale, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, which was released in October 2012, featured on Dr. Oz, on Larry King Live, on Oprah and on the cover of Newsweek. It  sold over two million copies and had been on the best-seller list for 35 weeks as of July 2013; more recent sales figures are not available, but it is no longer near the top of the best-seller list. But almost two years since the book came out, a lot of interesting facts have emerged that make the book seem less like a non-fictional account of heaven, and more like a convenient fiction to get a doctor in trouble out of his predicament and at the same time, make him filthy rich and immune to the criticism of the scientific and medical community. Now he has a website to suck in more readers, and is bragging about his next book to come out soon, called Map of Heaven.

The basic story is that Alexander, a neurosurgeon, was infected by a virulent strain of bacterial meningitis and was put in intensive care for seven days in 2008. Doctors also used drugs to induce a coma, which shuts down part of the brain. After his infection had subsided, he awoke from his coma, sure that he had experiences of heaven. He gave an elaborate account of it which takes up most of the book, complete with descriptions of millions of butterflies, and seeing his late sister in a peasant dress and having a conversation with her. He asserts that he was medically dead during this time, that his cerebral cortex was shut down, and that he miraculously came back to life with a memory of a pleasant short trip to celestial paradise.

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