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Jamy Ian Swiss -- A Year of Skeptic Win (TAM 2014)

A Year of Skeptic Win

At The Amazing Meeting 2014, renowned skeptic and magician Jamy Ian Swiss recaps the year in skeptical wins with passion and humor, demonstrating through numerous examples how we skeptics are making a difference, how and why the world is becoming ever more rational and reasonable thanks to the spread of skepticism and critical thinking, and what you can do to contribute to this progress. Don’t miss this impassioned call for action.

Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason (modified detail of cover)
About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero, reviews Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason, by Seth Andrews.

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The Thinking Atheist Confesses

by Donald R. Prothero

In recent years, there have been a number of “confessional” books describing the deconversion experience of non-believers. The most famous of these is Dan Barker’s (2012) Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, along with Jerry DeWitt’s (2013) Hope After Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism. Daniel Dennett and Linda DaScola’s (2013) book Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind documents a number of ministers and preachers who have lost their faith, yet must keep up appearances or face ostracism and rejection from their families and the entire community.

So far, however, we are only hearing from ministers who lose their faith. Seth Andrews provides an autobiographical account of someone who was deeply involved in fundamentalism. More than just a local minister, Andrews was even more influential as a Christian broadcaster, DJ, and talk-show host on some of the most widely broadcast Christian radio programs in the United States. Not only was his voice heard by far more people than most local ministers can reach, but he wasn’t trained as a theologian. Thus, he can capture the thinking of someone who is a rank-and-file evangelical. Now he has come all the way from one extreme to the other, using his radio and studio skills to create numerous popular YouTube videos and “The Thinking Atheist” podcast, one of the best and biggest of all the secular podcasts out there. Several hundred thousand subscribers download every show, a number few other secular podcasters can match.

Andrews writes in a friendly, relaxed folksy style, just as you hear him on the air, and it suits his humble narrative well. He is a good storyteller and conversationalist not only in his radio work, but on the printed page as well. His autobiographical account begins with his strict religious upbringing, where only Disney and other G-rated movies were allowed, and his parents reacted severely when Seth was exposed to science (such as evolution) in school. In high school, he became a fan of “Christian rock”—the bland, watered-down, theologically safe alternative to real rock’n’roll bands. They imitated and plagiarized nearly every trend in popular music, except with godly lyrics. This led him to his first career at a small radio station in Oklahoma, where he worked his way up to becoming the leading DJ on one of the top Christian rock stations in the land by the mid 1990s.

Then in 1997, the first of a series of events shook his faith: the “John Lennon” of Christian rock, Rich Mullins, was killed in a horrible car accident. Andrews describes his feeling of doubt about God’s mercy, and his horror at the event, as well as the revulsion he felt when everyone began rationalizing it by saying “God called him home.” He further slid away from his safe sheltered world when he lost his job at a conservative Christian radio station and had to take work on another radio station where he was surrounded by secular people all the time.

Then the events of 9/11 made him question God even further, especially when religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blamed it on homosexuals and other secular sinners. His ebbing faith remained dormant until 2004, when he saw the video of Christopher Hitchens debating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Hitchens’ intelligence, quick wit, honesty and candor ran circles around the theologically twisted ideas of the Rabbi. Soon Andrews was reading not only the works of prominent atheists, but also re-reading the Bible and discovering how barbaric it is. Meanwhile, the radio business downsized and went syndicated, so secure full-time jobs in in that industry nearly vanished. Andrews quit and became an independent producer before the axe fell. By 2009, he came out of the theist closet to his family and began to produce short atheist videos for YouTube, which were huge hits. Then he started on his own, self-produced show that is now “The Thinking Atheist.”

The latter part of the book is full of his shrewd observations on religion and atheism. Among the gems are his list of the different categories of believers he’s come to know (the Feeler, the Theologian, the Folklorist, and the Foot Soldier), and his answers to the common questions he gets from the many believers who cannot accept his atheism. As someone who grew up in a slightly different Protestant tradition (Presbyterianism) and grew out of his family’s faith also, I can relate to many of Andrews’ experiences—as can most people who were raised in strictly religious families and have found their way out of their religious shackles.

Even though the book is self-published, it is remarkably cleanly produced with no typographical or grammatical or other errors often found in books without the support of a major publisher. Thanks to the wonders of the modern internet age, people can now self-publish important works such as this and allow and other online booksellers to do the rest. Andrews’ book is a short but very enjoyable read. It is especially of interest to anyone who has made a similar journey from faith to non-belief, or wishes to understand how this process works. END

Video still from Confessions of Bigfoot Hunter, by Jonathan Blais

Bigfoot or Baloney?
Confessions of a Bigfoot Hunter

Chatter about Bigfoot never seems to end. Back in January, we shared with you the confessions of Bigfoot-hunter-turned-skeptic Jonathan Blais. Once fascinated by the prospect of a Bigfoot species, he is now committed to the science behind why people believe in extraordinary claims. To accompany his confessions article, he recently put together this video montage and timeline of the events in the Adirondack wilderness.

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Skeptic Presents: An Interview with Pope Francis

In this video — the sixth in our witty and satirical “Skeptic Presents” series, Michael Shermer interviews Pope Francis.

If you missed our first five videos, check them out.

Help Us Make More Videos

If you would like to show your support for these videos, please make a tax-deductible donation to the Skeptics Society. With your support, we hope to produce these instructional, educational, and entertaining videos regularly throughout the year for free viewing and use by everyone everywhere to spread the message of the power of science and skepticism to make the world a saner, safer place.

CREDITS: Special thanks to David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, and Jim Robinson for their support in launching this series of Skeptic videos.

Written and Produced by: Brian Keith Dalton, Michael Shermer, Pat Linse, Jennifer Shermer Directed, lensed, and edited by: Brian Keith Dalton. Executive Producers: David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, Jim Robinson. Starring: Michael Shermer, Brian Keith Dalton. Music by Final Cut Pro. Shot on a Canon C100.

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Skeptic Presents: An Interview with Pope Francis

An Interview with People Francis

In this video — the sixth in our witty and satirical “Skeptic Presents” series, Michael Shermer interviews Pope Francis.

CREDITS: Special thanks to David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, and Jim Robinson for their support in launching this series of Skeptic videos.

Written and Produced by: Brian Keith Dalton, Michael Shermer, Pat Linse, Jennifer Shermer. Directed, lensed, and edited by: Brian Keith Dalton. Executive Producers: David Cowan, Daniel Mendez, Jim Robinson. Starring: Michael Shermer, Brian Keith Dalton. Music by: Final Cut Pro. Shot on: a Canon C100.

If you missed our previous videos, check them out:

  1. The Con Academy
  2. B.Y.T.H Busters: The Secret Law of Attraction
  3. You Can’t Handle The Truther
  4. What is a Skeptic?
  5. Get Your Guru Going

Help Us Make More Videos

If you would like to show your support for these videos, please make a tax-deductible donation to the Skeptics Society. With your support, we hope to produce these instructional, educational, and entertaining videos regularly throughout the year for free viewing and use by everyone everywhere to spread the message of the power of science and skepticism to make the world a saner, safer place.

Make a tax-deductible donation
to the Skeptics Society

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Sikivu Hutchinson
Race and Religious Rebels

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek tracked down Sikivu Hutchinson, a passionate skeptic and rights activist. Sikivu is the senior intergroup specialist for the Los Angles County Human Relations Commission, and the author of several books centering around race, gender, politics, and atheism in minority society within the United States. Her most recent book, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, attempts to shed light on the issues around minorities which often get overlooked by many in atheist communities and skeptic circles.

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Get the Skepticality App — the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society, so you can enjoy your science fix and engaging interviews on the go! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices. Subscribe to Skepticality for free on iTunes.

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Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? (cover)

Pre-order the book from Amazon (released Sep 21, 2014)

MonsterTalk # 87
More Brainssss

What can a shambling zombie teach us about the human brain? According to Brad Voytek and Tim Verstynen, quite a lot. Their new book is called Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? and in this episode of MonsterTalk we’ll be talking “Brainssss…”

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

Donald Prothero -- The Mind of the Science Denier (TAM 2014)

The Mind of the Science Denier

The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country—all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Donald R. Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain.

Edward Slingerland Video, On Demand
Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science
of Spontaneity

Edward Slingerland (photo by Paul Joseph)

Why is it always hard to fall asleep the night before an important meeting? Or be charming and relaxed on a first date? What is it about a politician who seems wooden or a comedian whose jokes fall flat or an athlete who chokes? In all of these cases, striving seems to backfire. In Trying Not To Try, Edward Slingerland explains why we find spontaneity so elusive, and shows how early Chinese thought points the way to happier, more authentic lives. We’ve long been told that the way to achieve our goals is through careful reasoning and conscious effort. But recent research suggests that many aspects of a satisfying life, like happiness and spontaneity, are best pursued indirectly. Through stories of mythical creatures and drunken cart riders, jazz musicians and Japanese motorcycle gangs, Slingerland effortlessly blends Eastern thought and cutting-edge science to show us how we can live more fulfilling lives. Order Trying Not to Try from Amazon.

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Announcing the Fall 2014 Season
of Distinguished Science Lectures

MARK YOUR CALENDAR! The Skeptics Society is pleased to announce another season of our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech. All events begin on a Sunday at 2pm in Baxter Lecture Hall on the Caltech campus, except for Steven Pinker’s lecture, which happens on a Saturday (October 4). Lecture events feature a Q&A period after the talk, and a book signing by the author. Also, lecture-goers are invited to meet and talk to the speaker and socialize with fellow skeptics over dinner and libations at Burger Continental in Pasadena. Tickets are sold 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. First up…

Dr. Katherine-Freese.jpg
The Cosmic Cocktail:
Three Parts Dark Matter

with Dr. Katherine Freese
Sun., Sep. 7, 2014 at 2 pm

THE ORDINARY ATOMS that make up the known universe constitute only 5% of all matter and energy in the cosmos. The rest is known as dark matter and dark energy, because their precise identities are unknown. The Cosmic Cocktail is the inside story of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science—what is the universe made of?—told by one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter, acclaimed University of Michigan theoretical physicist Katherine Freese. Theorists contend that dark matter consists of fundamental particles known as WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles. Billions of them pass through our bodies every second without us even realizing it, yet their gravitational pull is capable of whirling stars and gas at breakneck speeds around the centers of galaxies, and bending light from distant bright objects. Dr. Freese describes the larger-than-life characters and clashing personalities behind the race to identify these elusive particles. Order The Cosmic Cocktail from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

Followed by…
  • The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience
    of Communication and Cognition

    with Dr. Gregory Hickok
    Sunday, September 21, 2014 at 2 pm
  • The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide
    to Writing in the 21st Century

    with Dr. Steven Pinker
    Saturday, October 4, 2014 at 2 pm
  • The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science
    & the Search for Meaning

    with Dr. Marcelo Gleiser
    Sunday, October 5, 2014 at 2 pm
  • Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View
    of the Zombie Brain

    with Dr. Bradley Voytek
    Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 2 pm
  • The Psychology of Magic (includes a magic show!)
    with Dr. Tony Barnhart
    Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 2 pm
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma
    with Dr. Andrew Hodges
    Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 2 pm

Read about all
upcoming lectures


The Memory Factory

For those of you who missed The Amazing Meeting 2014, we present another lecture from that event, by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on memory in the field of cognitive psychology.

One of the biggest myths in the history of psychology is that memory is like a video tape that can be played back for everyone to see what “really happened.” In this lecture, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, one of the world’s leading experts on memory, shows how we all edit our memories from the moment they are formed to the last time we recall them. That editing process is based on a number of emotional, psychological, and social factors that shape our memories.

Michael Shermer (second from the right) with his teammates in the 4-man relay team that rode this fully faired recumbent bicycle across America in 1989. Although much faster than a normal upright bicycle on the flats and downhills, recumbents are slower on climbs and do not turn or maneuver as well in turns and traffic.

Michael Shermer (second from the right) with his teammates in the 4-man relay team that rode this fully faired recumbent bicycle across America in 1989. Although much faster than a normal upright bicycle on the flats and downhills, recumbents are slower on climbs and do not turn or maneuver as well in turns and traffic.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews Bicycle Design: An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. This review was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on July 5, 2014.

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A Two Wheeled Path

by Michael Shermer

Path dependency is an economic concept to describe what happens when a technology becomes stuck in a market pathway out of historical momentum, especially when the transactions costs of changing course are too high. The QWERTY keyboard is the most popular example of the phenomenon. As the standard narrative has it, QWERTY got a head start in the late 19th century over other keyboard arrangements that were vastly superior and so now we are stuck with this clunky keyboard system because of historical lock in.

Baloney. The QWERTY keyboard may not be the best of all possible letter key arrangements, but it has consistently held up against all would-be competitors because it is good enough to get the job done compared to costs of changing technologies for minuscule margins of improvement. What happens in most technologies is that the earliest innovators make most of the significant design features, which later generations tinker with and modify for improvements, and change happens mostly for convenience or efficiency factors, and not because of initial serious design flaws.

The bicycle is a case study in how technologies evolve, evidence for which is in abundant supply in Tony Hadland’s and Hans-Erhard Lessing’s encyclopedic history of bicycle design. This marvelous book features over 300 illustrations culled from many sources, most intriguingly from patent records. Having lived through what I thought was a major revolution in cycling technology in the 1980s when I was competing in the 3000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America, I discovered in Bicycle Design that most of that decade’s innovations (as well as those in the decades hence), were invented, designed, and in many cases patented by cycling innovators decades or even a century before.

An early upright bicycle with the central features in place.

An early upright bicycle with the central features in place.

Today’s Tour de France professionals are riding machines whose fundamental design can be seen in Starley and Sutton’s 1885 Rover Safety bike, in the 1892 Sunbeam Special Light Road Racer, in Raleigh’s 1939 Carlton Flyer, and others: the diamond shaped frame with a top tube between the seat and handlebars, a head tube holding the handlebars and the fork for the front wheel, a down tube between the head tube and the bottom bracket for the pedals and drive train, and a seat tube between the seat and bottom bracket. The wheels are equal in size and the cyclist sits upright and propels the bike forward by means of pedaling a chain ring around which a chain turns a set of cogs attached to the rear wheel. Steering is done by controlling the front wheel and brakes are affixed to both wheel rims with controls on the handlebars.

The diamond frame design with an upright pedaling cyclist is not a quirk of history, nor is it a suboptimal design foisted upon us by path dependency. The design works because of human anatomy. In terms of propelling a body forward under human power, no one has come up with a better design for all terrains in a century of innovation. The closest thing to a revolutionary re-design is the recumbent bike with the cyclist positioned in a supine (horizontal) position. Recumbents are advantageous on flat surfaces, but they also have distinct disadvantages on climbs and rough terrain—I know because I rode the recumbent Gold Rush across America in 1989. In any case, Bicycle Design features illustrations (and patent numbers) for recumbents that date back to the 1890s, so it’s had over a century to displace its primary competitor.

A racing bicycle from the turn of the century differs little in principle from modern racing bicycles used today.

A racing bicycle from the turn of the century differs little in principle from modern racing bicycles used today.

What about bicycle components, accessories, and materials? When Greg LeMond became the first (and still only) American to win the Tour de France in the 1980s, we all thought he and his bike designers had invented, for example, clipless pedals, which we all adopted as new and revolutionary. But Bicycle Design features an illustration for patent No. 550,409 dated Nov. 26, 1895 for a clipless pedal system invented by Charles M. Hanson that looks every bit as efficient as what the pros ride today. What about the comfortable padded and yet efficient saddles people now ride? Hadland and Lessing include designs and patents for padded and spring-suspended saddles dating back to the late 19th century. How about those shock absorber and suspension systems featured on modern mountain bikes? See the 1869 French patent for a twin-fork front suspension system using leaf springs, or U.S. patent No. 97,683 for four forms of front wheel suspension invented by René Oliver. Spokes? Designs for compression spoke wheels were granted in 1867, 1868, and 1869 to seven different inventors. Similarly for derailleurs that shift gears: patents were first granted in 1868, with numerous multi-speed patents awarded in the 1890s. Disk brakes used by mountain bikers were patented a century ago.

Of course, as Hadland and Lessing point out, “just because something was patented doesn’t mean that it was widely adopted or even that it was put into production. It does, however, show that a problem and a solution were understood by someone at a particular time and in a particular place.” After that, numerous factors come into play that determine whether or not it becomes a commercial success: quality, efficiency, cost, marketing, but almost never path dependency. END

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ClimeApocalypse!: Or just another line item in the budget?

The world has many problems: armed conflicts, natural disasters, hunger, disease, education, and global warming to name a few. Which problem should we tackle and how much should we spend?



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Thomas Goetz (photo by Dustin Aksland)

Credit: Dustin Aksland

Get the Skepticality App — the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society, so you can enjoy your science fix and engaging interviews on the go! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices.

The Elementary Remedy

This week on Skepticality, Derek talks with Thomas Goetz, past Executive Editor for Wired magazine, co-founder of Iodine, and author of healthcare related books. Thomas’s latest book, The Remedy, is about Robert Koch, the father of modern bacteriology, his quest to find the cause and cure for tuberculosis, and the relationship between Koch and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Donald Prothero Video, On Demand
“Abominable Science” and “Reality Check”

Dr. Donald Prothero

Geologist, paleontologist, evolutionary theorist and social activist in the name of science and skepticism, Dr. Donald Prothero talks about his two new books that deal with battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line. To shed light on this darkness, Prothero explains the scientific process and why society has come to rely on science not only to provide a better life but also to reach verifiable truths no other method can obtain. Read more…

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Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying?
Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap
in Sexual Allegations

For those of you who missed The Amazing Meeting 2014, we present another lecture from that event, by one of Skeptic magazine’s columnists, Dr. Carol Tavris. Tavris writes “The Gadfly” column in each issue beginning this year.

The Woody Allen sex scandal of 2013 triggered a national conversation on whom to believe, with people lining up on each side as if they knew what really happened. Based on recent research on how people navigate the often tricky waters of sexual negotiation, Dr. Carol Tavris shows that it is entirely possible in some sexual assault cases neither side is lying, but instead both sides feel justified in their positions. This talk was considered one of the best ever given at TAM. (Read the article on this same topic that appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 19.2.)

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts). Order the book, or order lecture on DVD, or rent the lecture on Vimeo on Demand.

About this week’s eSkeptic

Tattletale, Ratfink, Stool Pigeon, Snitch, Informer, Canary, Turncoat, Bigmouth, Busybody, Fat Mouth, Weasel, Informer, Squealer, Backstabber, Double-Crosser, Agent-Provocateur, Shill, Judas, Quisling, Treasonist… In this week’s eSkeptic, Frederick V. Malmstrom and David Mullin explain why whistleblowing is a dangerous game. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 19.1 (2014).

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Why Whistleblowing Doesn’t Work:
Loyalty is a Whole Lot Easier
to Enforce than Honesty

by Frederick V. Malmstrom and David Mullin

Whistleblowing is a dangerous game. Most often, whistleblowers’ allegations are ignored or their motives are suspected, while whistleblowers themselves are attacked, ostracized, threatened, and even fired. The primary reason for whistleblowers failing to report dishonesty is fear of retribution, while conscience and duty are discounted. Wouldbe whistleblowers often rationalize their failure to blow the whistle because they fear they will be seen as disloyal. The dilemma between honesty and loyalty is presented as an instance of a Nash Equilibrium economic model. Toleration of dishonesty by others is the major contributing factor to both individual and organizational dishonesty, as clearly shown by past major scandals such as those uncovered in the New York City Police Department, Enron, the Tour de France, and the school systems of Atlanta, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia. More significantly, our research shows a steady rise in toleration of dishonesty at the three major U.S. service academies over the past half-century.


Figure 1: Time magazine’s 2002 Persons of the Year: Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley, and Sherron Watkins. Printed with permission of Time Inc.

Whistleblowers as Heroes

On December 30th, 2002, Time magazine proudly introduced the world to its annual recognition, “Persons of the Year. The Whistleblowers.” The magazine cover displayed three determined-looking women, Cynthia Cooper of World-Com, Coleen Rowley of the FBI, and Sherron Watkins of Enron. These women were prominently identified and displayed as whistleblowers on organizational corruption. Initially, each of these women had informed their organization’s executives about the organization’s suspect practices. And in each case their warnings were ignored or stonewalled, either intentionally or otherwise. Cooper, Rowley, and Watkins had become unintentional whistleblowers only after their repeated warnings had been leaked to outside authorities and the press.1

Time enthusiastically praised Cooper, Rowley, and Watkins as highly moral heroes and pathfinders who might someday lead a revolution in organizational ethics. But, alas, the revolution never happened. Worse, neither Watkins nor Cooper were ever hired again, and Rowley was never promoted. Watkins and Cooper did later manage to start their own small private consulting firms, but the FBI silently retired Rowley. From time to time, all three of these whistleblowers are requested to speak to groups, but that’s about as far as the revolution has ever moved.

A Most Dangerous Game

Whistleblowing historically has been a dangerous and unequal contest, matching the individual against his or her own organization. Very few whistleblowers emerge from this contest without severe wounds, while the organization most often stands supreme. There have been few controlled or field studies on whistleblowing, and most published literature on this topic has been in the form of case studies, which have concluded that more often than not the whistleblower is counterattacked and often fired.2 Whistleblowing cases have been known to drag on for over 20 years, leaving the whistleblower with nothing to show but debts, and often unemployment. The majority of whistleblowers interviewed admitted they were initially naïve and had learned a painful lesson—never do it again.3

Contrary to popular fiction, whistleblowers are not held in high regard. “Whistleblower” is a word invented in the late 20th century and it’s often associated with unflattering pejoratives such as: Tattletale, Ratfink, Stool Pigeon, Snitch, Informer, Canary, Turncoat, Bigmouth, Busybody, Fat Mouth, Weasel, Informer, Squealer, Backstabber, Double-Crosser, Agent-Provocateur, Shill, Judas, Quisling, Treasonist, and so forth. There are at least as many synonyms for “whistle-blower” as Mark Twain identified for “intoxicated.”

The Tragic Hero: Breaking the NYPD’s Blue Code of Silence

One generalization from our research is that the closer knit the group, the greater the retribution on whistleblowers. Accordingly, few persons are as disliked by cops as a cop who becomes an internal rat. David Durk began as a New York City patrolman in 1963 and within seven years had worked his way up to the rank of detective. Working frequently with another legendary law-enforcement figure—New York City detective Frank Serpico—in 1971 they exposed cases of internal police corruption to the New York Times reporter David Burnham. Serpico later received recognition as a hero in the classic Al Pacino-Sidney Lumet film Serpico. Perhaps unfairly, the film ignored Durk’s equally important contribution to the investigations. Much of the corruption that Durk and Serpico exposed was of the run-of-the-mill variety, such as minor payoffs. However, Durk’s independent investigations opened up much more serious charges, such as cops who were running drug rings, organizing shakedowns, and even condoning murders-for-hire.

More importantly, Durk was one of the first to lay out the ubiquitous problem of departmental toleration. The biggest problem, according to Durk, was not with the dirty cops but with the dirty supervisors who had received information about corruption and sat on it or buried it. Durk was one of the very few who lived up to his sworn oath that New York policemen were on duty 24 hours a day, in uniform or out.4

Shortly after the investigation had run its course, Frank Serpico—by then a heartily disillusioned man—retired from the NYPD on medical disability from gunshot wounds incurred during a drug raid. However, David Durk stayed on, which he later regretted doing. During his remaining years with the NYPD, Durk received countless anonymous threatening letters, phone calls, and the usual dead animals (especially rats) deposited on his car and in his locker. He never advanced above the rank of lieutenant.

After 22 years of civil service, Durk retired in 1985 on a pension of less than $17,000 per year. Only then did he realize that he couldn’t get another job. He had unquestionably given New York City far more than it had ever returned to him, but job lead after promising job lead evaporated. Former associates and supervisors described Durk not as a civic whistleblower but as a “malcontent,” a “tub-thumper,” “a walking embarrassment,” and, of course, that popular pejorative, “crazy.” Here was his personal confirmation of the “nuts and sluts” defense. Regardless of the merits of the case, the accused’s lawyers will always attack either the integrity or the mental stability of a whistleblowing malcontent.

Durk eventually resigned himself to acting as a mostly unofficial, nonpaid consultant—and a valuable one too—but only to other persecuted whistleblowers. Like most of the ranks of whistleblowers, Durk never wrote a book, never ran for public office, and never profited financially from his efforts.5 And so ended another instance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s postulate, “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.”

Dereliction of Duty

Legally, in most states ordinary citizens are under no obligation to report a crime or misdeed. However, public officials under oath operate under a different set of rules. Under United States laws, dereliction of duty (sometimes legally known as misprision of felony) can be committed by an officeholder who takes an oath of allegiance to the city, state, or nation. The official—whether police officer or president—commits a crime or misdemeanor when he conceals or intentionally does not report crimes and misdemeanors.

No one will ever know how many cases occur of superiors who pooh-pooh or cover up reports from would-be whistleblowers. Note this quote from the November 13, 2012, New York Times obituary of David Durk: “As Mr. Durk recalled, ‘The fact is that almost wherever we turned in the Police Department, wherever we turned in the city administration, and almost wherever we went in the rest of the city, we were met not with cooperation, not with appreciation, not with an eagerness to seek out the truth, but with suspicion and hostility and laziness and inattention, and with our fear that at any moment our efforts might be betrayed.’”6

From Enron to Atlanta Schools: A Nash Equilibrium at Work

There are plenty of individual case studies on whistleblowing, but, alas, there have been few reliable, controlled studies. Hundreds of insiders knew first-hand about the 1971 NYPD corruption. Scores of insiders knew about the Enron pyramid schemes of the late 1990s. Even more insiders knew about the recent teachers’ cheating scandals of Atlanta, New Orleans, and the District of Columbia, wherein platoons of teachers and administrators were illegally changing student test scores to meet the ever-increasing and unrealistic demands of the No Child Left Behind law.7 Those few unfortunates who reported misconduct of colleagues to their supervisors were ignored, disciplined, or fired. And so the result was that nobody did anything, and misconduct kept building. How could this have happened?

There is a struggle between whistleblowers and the rest of us who merely tolerate wrongdoing. This ongoing struggle is beautifully summed up within the powerful mathematical algorithm developed by the Nobel Laureate John Nash, now known as the Nash Equilibrium. In an investigation for Scientific American, Michael Shermer presented the doping scandals in cycling of the past few decades in the form of an economic game called The Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which players are presented with an option to either cooperate with a fellow prisoner or defect, the outcome of which depends on what the other prisoner does.8 We need not worry ourselves about the specifics of this particular game, but, in fact, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is but one variant of the Nash Equilibrium. In addition to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a very short list of examples of other game variants of the Nash equilibrium include: (1) the Tragedy of the Commons, (2) Chicken, (3) the Dictator Game, (4) the Ultimatum Game, (5) the Battle of the Sexes, and (6) Mutual Assured Destruction.

Stated plainly, the Nash Equilibrium says no matter which way any player moves from his present position, he will be worse off than if he stands pat. That is, a system or contest is in equilibrium if neither player has anything to gain by changing strategies. There is no such thing as a final, satisfactory solution to the dilemma.9 All variants of the Nash Equilibrium deal with the contest of cooperation versus defection. That is, those persons who act in the best interest of their group are labeled cooperators, and those who act in their own selfish interest are labeled defectors.

A Formula for Mutual Disaster

Figure 2. Actor Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove. The Mutual Assured Destruction game played to its ultimate ghastly conclusion of thermonuclear war. Printed with permission of Sony Pictures.

The Cold War strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was the case in which neither the U.S. nor the USSR had anything to gain by launching a nuclear first strike because the other side could still retaliate and thereby assure mutual destruction of both countries. A MAD game assumes both parties will act reasonably and refrain from defecting, but this becomes a dangerous assumption if at least one party turns out to be irrational (e.g., a religious fanatic who looks forward to a martyr’s death). If defecting is the dominant strategy for both parties—as pointed out by Nobel economist Alvin Roth—the game becomes a most uncomfortable sub-optimal Nash Equilibrium, and both parties will then be worse off than if they had initially cooperated.10 The dominant strategy of mutual defection during a Mutual Assured Destruction contest was brilliantly played out to its ultimate ghastly conclusion of thermonuclear war in the 1964 black comedy film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.11

The Whys and Why Nots of Whistleblowing

We explored the mechanics of whistleblowing with a public goods game at the U.S. Air Force Academy. In 2011, we conducted a large-scale experiment with 296 cadets enrolled in an economics course. Players were divided into teams of eight, with an initial cash stake given to each person. The individuals played in plain sight of each other with their military rank clearly visible. They had three options for donating or not donating cash to a communal pot. If the individual (1) chose to donate (Cooperator), the group would benefit, and the individual would share equally with his teammates. However, (2) if he chose not to donate (Defector), he could free-ride and keep his initial stake and also share in the group profits. The final wrinkle was that he could also (3) punish fellow freeriding team members (Whistleblower) by first paying an up-front fee and then fining the freerider who didn’t contribute to the general welfare. Our players had no special duty to either punish or not punish colleagues.


Surprisingly, our experiment yielded interesting findings as to why the players both did and did not punish their free-riding colleagues. The various reasons are listed in Table 1 on a seven-point scale, with seven as the highest priority, and one as the lowest. This table shows the mean values for all reasons listed in descending order of importance.12

The first conclusion that emerges from Table 1 is that people blow the whistle for a variety of reasons. The second conclusion is that most of the reasons—pro and con—for punishing colleagues are rather personal. That is, players will punish for primarily selfish reasons, such as personal profit and revenge. Fear of reprisal is weightier than loyalty. Players will, indeed, punish non-contributors for the welfare of the group, but that appears to be a secondary motive. Finally, the motive of Moral Outrage (conscience) is completely discounted.

Athletics, Doping, and Conscience

Conscience may well be a motivator for whistleblowing, but it appears to be a weak one. Michael Shermer cited three-time Tour de France cycling champion Greg LeMond, who had encouraged his fellow American, the 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, to come clean about his doping. “‘What would I gain doing that?’ LeMond recalled Landis saying. ‘You would clear your conscience and help save cycling.’ LeMond replied.” It took Landis three years to attend to his conscience and come clean, reporting both his own doping and that of his trainers and teammates, particularly his world-renowned, now disgraced, cycling teammate Lance Armstrong.13

The Whistleblower’s Dilemma: Omertà v. Duty

The decision to blow the whistle or not is often couched in the uncomfortable choice between loyalty and duty. Duty has been framed more politely by social psychologist Adam Waytz and his colleagues as a political contest of social fairness versus loyalty.14 Our research suggests, to the contrary, that the loyalty claimed by non-whistleblowers is more often a post-hoc, after the-fact justification rather than a sincere sentiment. Indeed, passionate vows of loyalty often run quite shallow.15

Among the most common reasons for not whistleblowing is the infamous Omertà rule, a peculiar code of honor dating back at least 500 years and probably as old as humanity. It translates to the Code of Silence whereby everyone maintains firm loyalty to the group, and no one within that group cooperates with authorities. Stated otherwise, it reads: You will not snitch. Defectors who break the code of silence are subject to extreme sanctions, including death. Reputed underworld figure Whitey Bolger, during his recently concluded criminal trial, had emphatically argued that snitching on fellow mobsters is a far worse crime than murder.16

Group loyalty is often claimed by group members as a prime motivator for not whistleblowing, but our research suggests that this excuse is largely a dodge. More likely, it is the fear of retribution that stifles whistleblowing. Thus, there is a corollary to the Omertà rule: Loyalty is a whole lot easier to enforce than honesty.

The Academies’ Honor Codes and the Duty to Blow the Whistle

Figure 3: The U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code. The bottom three lines state the non-toleration clause.

All U.S. service academies have an honor code that clearly mandates that cadets and midshipmen will not lie, cheat, or steal. The U.S. Air Force Academy’s honor code reads specifically, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” That final phrase of the honor code is traditionally referred to as the “non-toleration clause.”17 The U.S. Military Academy’s honor code is similar. The U.S. Naval Academy’s honor code differs only in that toleration of dishonesty is viewed as a disciplinary matter and not one of honor. Either way, it is a cadet’s and midshipman’s sworn duty to report dishonesty; not to do so is dereliction of duty. Lying, cheating, and stealing—and, of course, tolerating lying, cheating and stealing—at any service academy can be officially met with severe sanctions, including probation, disenrollment, or outright dismissal.


Figure 4: 52-year trends of self-admitted violations, reporting of violations (whistleblowing), and toleration of honor violations by 2,465 U.S. service academy graduates. Toleration of dishonesty has been steadily increasing over the past half-century.

In particular, we found the role played by deliberate toleration of fellow cadets and midshipmen engaging in unethical or dishonest acts was a highly significant factor leading to even further widespread dishonesty. Our 30-year ongoing survey effort of a longitudinal random sample of 747 Air Force Academy resignees18 and 2,465 graduates of the three major U.S. service academies from 1959 through 201119 clearly showed a significantly steady rise in self-admitted honor code violations from about 10% to over 50%.20 Most disturbingly, about 15% of our respondents had apparently personally re-interpreted their institutional honor codes and somehow no longer regarded toleration of dishonesty by others to be a violation of their duty to report.21 This is a rear-exit way of excusing your sin by arguing, essentially, That one didn’t count.

The Service Academies and Toleration of Dishonesty

By 2010 the effective rate of admitted toleration of dishonesty by graduates of all three major U.S. service academies (Army, Navy, and Air Force) violations had risen to 65%. What’s more, for the first time the rate of toleration of dishonesty had outstripped the rate of self-admitted honor violations, 65% to 55%. This is in clear contradiction of their honor oath, for large numbers of cadets and midshipmen no longer consider toleration of dishonesty as dereliction of duty.

Toleration of dishonesty seems to be an especially sticky problem at all three major U.S. service academies, and our calculations also show toleration quickly leads to cynicism. Results from a longterm survey returned from 2,465 service academy graduates from the classes of 1959 through 2010 showed that toleration of dishonesty is by far the strongest predictor of personal dishonesty, accounting for a whopping 50% of variance. Toleration is equally predicted by the following factors: (1) Lack of respect for the honor codes, (2) Lack of resolve (lack of courage) to either report or confront others’ dishonesty, and (3) Subsequent lying, cheating, and stealing by the academy graduates. In other words, personal toleration of dishonesty almost inevitably led to cynicism.22

The results of these studies strongly support our hypothesis that toleration of dishonesty by others is the most prevalent element within—if not the key to—understanding dishonest behaviors. The non-toleration clause of the cadet Honor Code, while certainly a worthy ideal, appears to have had only weak-to-no effectiveness in curtailing dishonesty. One compelling explanation behind the ineffectiveness of non-toleration is that there are obviously heavy penalties but few rewards for whistleblowing. The whistleblower who acts out of pure motives of conscience is a rare saint indeed. For most people there is simply no incentive to move off their Nash Equilibrium.

Wanted: Good Whistleblowing Research

If toleration of dishonesty exists on such a significantly measurable scale in a cohesive, formal organization such as a U.S. service academy with its rigidly defined honor code, we are left to speculate on the prevalence of toleration in a less-regulated civilian society. Legislation is not a satisfactory answer. Unfortunately, there is little to no research on the welldocumented ineffectiveness of such well-meaning federal measures as the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Law and the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act.

As of 2007, only 3 of 203 suits brought before federal jurisdiction under the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act were successful. (What’s more, the CIA and FBI have exempted themselves from the law.) As for the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, only 1.8% of the whistleblowing cases were found to have merit, and 70% of the cases were dismissed outright. It is evident that enforcement of such laws is hindered by lack of incentives and severe penalties to the whistleblower.23

More recently, the issue of widespread NYPD police misconduct has resurfaced in the form of massive violations of the stop-and-frisk laws. Whistleblowers are again disciplined, and the organization stands in pious denial. An April 28, 2013, column from the Washington Post concludes with a memorable observation from a former whistleblower: “‘Nothing’s changed,’ the 76-year-old [Frank] Serpico said in a recent phone interview when asked about the current crop of whistle-blowers. ‘It’s the same old crap—kill the messenger.’”24 END

  1. Time Magazine. 2002. “Persons of the Year: The Whistleblowers.” December 30.
  2. Micelli. M., Near, J. & Schwenk, C., 1991. “Who Blows the Whistle and Why?” Industrial and Labor Relations, 45, 113–130.
  3. Alford, C.F., 2001. Whistle-Blowers, Broken Lives and Organizational Power. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. McFadden, R. D. 2012. “David Durk, Serpico’s Ally Against Graft, Dies at 77.” The New York Times, November 12.
  5. Lardner, J., 1996. Crusader. The Hell-Raising Career of Detective David Durk. New York: Random House.
  6. McFadden, Robert, 2012.
  7. Winerip, M. 2011. “Cracking a System in Which Test Scores Were for Changing.” The New York Times, July 17.
  8. Shermer, M. 2010. “The Nash Equilibrium, the Omertà rule, and Doping in Cycling.” July 7.
  9. Fisher, L. 2008. Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.
  10. Kagel, J. & Roth, A. E. (Editors). 1995. The Handbook of Experimental Economics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  11. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. 1964. Film: Columbia Pictures.
  12. Carson, K.R. et al. 2011. “Whistle-blowing and rank structure in a volunteer contribution mechanism game.” Paper presented to the Western Economic Association International; San Diego, CA, June 30.
  13. Shermer, 2010.
  14. Waytz, A., Dungan, J. & Young, L., 2013, in press. “The Whistleblower Dilemma and the Fairness-Loyalty Tradeoff.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
  15. Malmstrom, F., 2011. “The problems with whistle-blowing: U.S. v. Wailly.” Journal of Psychological Issues in Organizational Culture, 2(2), 96–107.
  16. Seelye, Katherine G. 2013. “As Bulger Trial Opens, Code of Honor is Subtext.” The New York Times, June 11.
  17. Air Force Cadet Wing Honor Code Reference Handbook, Vol I. Honorable Living, October, 2009. U.S. Air Force Academy CO: Center for Character Development.
  18. Malmstrom, F. & Mullin, R.D., 2013. “Dishonesty and Cheating in a Federal Service Academy: Toleration is the Main Ingredient.Research in Higher Education Journal, 19, 120–137.
  19. The survey is available in the appendix of: Carrell, S.C., Malmstrom, F. & West, J. 2008. “Peer Effects in Academic Cheating.” Journal of Human Resources, 43(1), 173–207.
  20. Malmstrom, F. & Mullin, D. 2013. “The Long-Term Decline of Service Academy Honor Codes.” Paper presented to the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association, Denver, CO, April 12.
  21. Mullin, D. & Malmstrom, F. 2013. “Service Academy Honor Systems: A Half-Century of Decline.” Paper presented to the Western Economic Association International, Seattle, WA, June 29.
  22. Mullin, D. & Malmstrom, F., 2013.
  23. Dworkin, T.M., 2007. “SOX and Whistleblowing.” Michigan Law Review, 105(8), 1575–1580.
  24. The Washington Post. 2013. “Whistleblowers Say They’re Harassed for Exposing Stopand-Frisk Wrongs; 2 Testify at Trial,” April 23.
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Skeptic Magazine Summer Sale--Save up to 70% off, now thru Sept. 21, 2014

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We are making space in our warehouse by clearing out our surplus inventory of Skeptic magazine back issues at amazing discounts. Order them from our online store now through Sunday, September 21, 2014, and save up to 70%* off the regular $6 back issue price! There has never been a better time to buy Skeptic magazine. Shop now and save!

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A Rare and Beautiful Thing

From July 10–13, the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “The Amazing Meeting 2014” conference in Las Vegas brought together many of the most engaging voices in science and skepticism for a challenging and joyful celebration of ideas. The Skeptics Society was in the spotlight, with Michael Shermer, Donald Prothero, and Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton taking the stage for feature presentations. Here is Loxton’s well-received speech on skeptical history, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.”


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Joe Laycock (photo by Dan Addison)

Credit: Dan Addison

Natasha Mikles

MonsterTalk # 86
Slenderman & Tulpas

They say Slenderman was created for a contest on a website. But the thin, faceless character has gone viral appearing in numerous art, stories, videos and even games. Some claim that all that combined focus has turned him real — a process known by ancient Tibetan Buddhists as forming a Tulpa. In this episode of MonsterTalk, Blake Smith interviews professor of religious studies Joe Laycock and doctoral student of Tibetan studies Natalia Mikels to discover the truth about Tulpas.

Since the creation of Slenderman the character has “gone viral” and spun off numerous art and fiction stories. And some fans of the Slenderman believe that he is real — either existing already from time immemorial, or that he exists now, brought to life by the combined belief of millions of humans in the form of a living creature known as a Tulpa.

Illustration by Pat Linse

Illustration by Pat Linse

About this week’s eSkeptic

The problem of defining psychiatric disorders is a challenge, and increasingly a matter of debate. Some have argued that definitions of psychiatric diagnoses are arbitrary. Most psychiatric disorders can be very well described as existing on a continuum with normal human experience and that there is overlap between disorders. In this week’s eSkeptic, Ralph Lewis, M.D. discusses the challenges to understanding and defining complex mental disorders. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 18.4 (2013).

Dr. Ralph Lewis is a Staff Psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Canada, and an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.

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Controversies in Psychiatric Diagnosis: What is a Mental Disorder? And When Are Irrational Beliefs Delusional?

by Ralph Lewis, M.D.

Your 16-year old son David has developed a lack of motivation in school and avoids spending time with the family. He seems easily stressed and pressured by any expectations or demands on him, or appears disinterested. He spends long hours isolated in his dark basement bedroom playing video games. His school attendance has become sporadic. He has withdrawn from his old friends. A few months ago he quit the high school baseball team and seemed to lose interest in sports, which had been his main “passion.” He goes out occasionally to hang with some new friends in the neighbourhood who you suspect are heavy pot users. He is neglecting his personal hygiene and wears the same clothes every day—all black, with a hoodie over his face.

All this has been developing over approximately the past year, more or less since you and your husband separated (fairly amicably). Recently David has started ranting on Facebook about strange, barely coherent religious and political ideas. In his few interactions with you and the rest of the family, he has gone from disengaged to increasingly volatile. Occasionally he tells you that “society sucks” and that “life is pointless.” David never previously exhibited major emotional or behavioral problems, but he had always been a reserved and slightly socially awkward kid who tended to be a little passive and unfocused, and not highly motivated. David and your family have had no prior contact with mental health professionals. One of your husband’s brothers seems never to have been able to hold a job and is something of a loner, and one of your husband’s long-deceased aunts was rumored to be “crazy” and was institutionalized for several years. Your own mother has always been “very high strung,” but otherwise high functioning.

Would you seek a psychiatric consultation for David? Do you think he has developed a depressive or anxiety disorder? Are you worried that he is in the early throes of an even more serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? Could this all be the effects of suspected regular marijuana use, hopefully fully reversible if only he would abstain? Or is this just a teenage phase? (Two of your friends have older kids who had seemed to go through similar phases and then managed to settle down and get on with their lives as they matured). How would you feel if a psychiatrist suggested medication—an antidepressant, or perhaps even an antipsychotic? You recall seeing newspaper headlines about some pretty alarming side effects to such medications, especially in teens. Maybe David just needs someone to talk to, an objective professional whom he might (hopefully) trust and confide in…

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

The DSM, published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), is an attempt at categorizing mental disorders. It is a well-intended, valiant, if obsessive effort—the most extensive and scientifically based classification of mental disorders available. It has more proven reliability than any other comprehensive classification of mental disorders (the DSM and the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases section on mental disorders are mostly harmonized with each other). But the classification system is (surprise!) significantly flawed. The history and foibles of the DSM have been previously described in this magazine.1,2 One of the main (but unavoidable) flaws is the almost complete reliance of diagnostic criteria on self-reported and observable symptoms rather than on objective tests (since all biological markers identified to date for mental illnesses lack sufficient specificity). Another (perhaps resultant) flaw is the considerable overlap of disorders with each other as well as with normality—most of the categories have fuzzy boundaries. Even seemingly distinct major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have long been recognized to have some overlap with each other, both in terms of symptom pattern and genetic risk factors.3 It is worth noting here that the problem of defining disease/disorder and its boundary with normality is often and increasingly a matter of debate in medicine in general, as more becomes understood about the continuum of disease processes (such as cancer).

Many DSM disorders also seem at least partially culturally bound. Most notoriously, until the early 1970s homosexuality had been listed as a disorder in an early version of the manual and was removed in part in response to lobbying and shifts in cultural attitudes that called into question the original diagnostic criteria.

The most recent fifth major revision, DSM-5,4 was published in May 2013. This was the first major revision since 1994.5 It has drawn criticism from many quarters. Surprisingly, one of the most vociferous critics has been the chairperson of the Task Force that revised DSM-IV, Allen Frances.6, 7 His criticisms mostly center on the process of this particular revision and on the broadening of categories of several mental disorders (“diagnostic inflation”) to incorporate phenomena that may arguably be considered aspects of the “normal” human condition, e.g., severe grief, children prone to (very) severe temper tantrums, binge eating, mild cognitive impairment in the elderly, behavioral addictions. Critics such as Gary Greenberg8 challenge the APA’s monopoly on diagnostic “naming rights” and question how psychiatry as a profession can even define mental disorders in any reliable way when they are based on often misleading symptoms and are subject to the lobbying influence of patient groups and clinicians. Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist who writes about his own experiences of depression, previously authored Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease. Now, in his The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry, Greenberg argues that definitions of psychiatric diagnoses are arbitrary. To make his point, he describes a pseudo-diagnosis earnestly defined in 1850 by New Orleans physician Samuel Cartwright as “drapetomania,” or “the disease causing Negroes to run away” from slavery.8More reasonably, Greenberg is simply cautioning that “the DSM is an attempt to command confidence by suggesting that psychiatry knows more than it does.”9

To be fair to the APA, criticizing is easy; coming up with a detailed, workable, valid alternative is inestimably harder. It’s not clear that any other organization could have done better or would have been able to marshal the enormous scientific resources to which the APA has access. The process has, in fact, been impressively rigorous in many respects (though arguably more rigorous for DSM-IV than for DSM-5). However, the process has evidently been flawed in many other respects, perhaps especially for this particular revision—organizationally flawed (e.g., insufficiently transparent, too rushed by publication deadlines, reaching premature conclusions relative to the scientific evidence for some diagnostic categories), and in some cases ethically flawed (financial conflicts of interest with regard to pharmaceutical company influence on some task force members). However, the much larger reason for problems in the diagnostic classification is the enormous complexity of the human brain and behavior.

Most experienced psychiatrists appreciate this complexity and do not interpret DSM categories rigidly. As one psychiatrist put it in a New York Times article: “The DSM cautions users against taking too literally the sharp boundaries between disorders and between illness and the normal difficulties of life. Unfortunately, however, key public institutions [insurance companies, state and government agencies, and even the courts] often disregard these caveats. …Many critics overlook a surprising fact about the new DSM: how little attention practicing psychiatrists will give to it.”10

There had been high hopes for DSM-5. In retrospect, these were based on unrealistic expectations that the exciting breakthroughs in neuroscience of the last two decades would translate into a radical redefinition of mental disorders. It was hoped that the revised diagnostic categories would be based on a solid understanding of the underlying brain-environment causation and the mechanisms/processes by which observable symptoms are produced.11 Furthermore, it was hoped that research would have produced biological markers that could serve as useful diagnostic tests. Many researchers and clinicians also recognised the inherent limitations and probable lack of validity of the categorical approach to classifying mental disorders (i.e., a system that defines disorders as separate categories and distinct entities). They hoped that DSM-5 would make the transformation to a dimensional approach, whereby mental disorders would be defined on continua, along various intersecting dimensions of psychopathology— dimensions that hopefully would map with more validity onto underlying brain and behavioral processes.

The DSM-5 task force itself had initially hoped and intended to adopt a dimensional approach to defining mental disorders,3 or at least a blended categorical and dimensional approach.12 It soon became apparent, however, that these hopes were premature. The science was simply not yet at the level of development that would be required in order to effect this transformation, and the brain and mental disorders were turning out to be even more complex than had generally been appreciated.13 Furthermore, dimensional measures are difficult to operationalize and are a lot more complicated than categorical diagnoses, so they tend to be tedious and unwieldy to apply in practice. At their annual meeting in May 2012, the APA Assembly voted unanimously to place all dimensional scales in the appendix of the manual, based on the excess burden the scales would place on clinicians (especially if institutions like hospitals and insurance companies would start to demand that clinicians use them).14 As Allen Frances put it: “Introducing a botched dimensional system prematurely into DSM-5 may have the negative effect of poisoning the well for their future acceptance by clinicians even when evidence supporting their use has become much more solid. Dimensional diagnosis remains an appealing idea whose time has not yet arrived.”15

NIMH’s Proposed Neurobiological Paradigm Shift

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Mental Health—the main U.S. government mental health research agency—appears to have been growing impatient with the APA’s-DSM process. Its Director, Thomas Insel, announced in April 2013 that the NIMH would be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories. Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories—or sub-divide current categories—to begin to develop a better system.”16 In a New York Times interview, Insel commented: “As long as the research community takes the DSM to be a bible, we’ll never make progress. … People think that everything has to match DSM criteria, but you know what? Biology never read that book.”17

The NIMH’s research-oriented diagnostic classification system is called the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project.19 Several years in the conceptualization, and envisaged as a long-term project, it aims to “Develop, for research purposes, new ways of classifying mental disorders based on dimensions of observable behavior and neurobiological measures.” It attempts to focus primarily on the level of brain circuitry. The RDoC approach is described as follows:

The intent is to generate classifications stemming from basic behavioral neuroscience. Rather than starting with an illness definition and seeking its neurobiological underpinnings, RDoC begins with current understandings of behavior-brain relationships and links them to clinical phenomena.

Constructs are grouped into major Domains of functioning, reflecting contemporary thinking about major aspects of motivation, cognition, and social behavior; the five domains are Negative Valence Systems (i.e., systems for “aversive motivation”), Positive Valence Systems (systems for “approach motivation”), Cognitive Systems, Systems for Social Processes, and Arousal/Regulatory Systems.18

Each construct is divided into subconstructs. Detailed frameworks are proposed for studying each of the subconstructs at the level of genes, molecules, cells, circuits, physiology, behavior and selfreports.18

While most psychiatrists and scientifically-oriented psychologists will probably regard the NIMH’s proposal as beginning to address many of the fundamental flaws of the DSM, more traditionally schooled therapists see attempts at anchoring mental disorder definitions more rigorously in neurobiology as being the problem.20 Allen Frances refers to that traditional view as “psycho-social reductionism.” He was, however, also initially critical of the NIMH for having “prematurely promised a grandiose paradigm shift.”21

To avoid possible perception that the NIMH was dissociating itself from, and supplanting, the DSM-5 classification system, APA president Jeffrey Lieberman, sounding worried, issued a joint damage-control statement in May 2013 with his “good friend and colleague” Thomas Insel. They clarified that the DSM-5 (as a clinical manual) and the NIMH’s RDoC (as a research proposal) are complementary.22, 23 The NIMH is building the framework for future revisions of the DSM but that proposed framework is nowhere near ready for clinical application.

The Threshold from Normal to Abnormal

Most disorders in DSM-5, as with previous versions of the DSM, include the criterion that the disturbance causes or is associated with “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational/academic, or other important areas of functioning.” Exactly how much distress or dysfunction qualifies as clinically significant is a matter of judgement on the part of the clinician. Most disorders also stipulate a minimum number of symptoms and a minimum duration/persistence.

Psychiatric disorders can be understood (with certain exceptions) as exaggerated or extreme forms of general human states and traits. Individuals may be predisposed genetically, or due to other biological or psychosocial factors, to develop disorders that in many cases are amplifications of less extreme, more general and universal human tendencies.

Many if not most psychiatric disorders show quite strong inherited patterns of susceptibility, almost certainly involving complex interactions between multiple susceptibility genes and gene-environment interactions. The course of a given disorder (acute single or recurrent episodes, chronic, life-long) differs for different disorders and for different individuals.

Most psychiatric disorders can be very well described as being on a continuum with normality— the tail end of the bell curve, if you will. There are many ways to understand the diversity of human traits and tendencies and their extreme dysfunctional forms by applying insights from fields such as cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology and evolutionary psychology. The spectrum approach can be applied to understanding autism, attention deficit, depression, anxiety, obsessiveness, sexual dysfunctions, addiction, cognitive impairment in the elderly, and personality disorders, among other conditions. As we shall see, even psychosis can be understood on a continuum.

The Myth of Mental Illness and the 1960s Anti-psychiatry Movement

Social critic psychiatrists Thomas Szasz and R.D. Laing famously argued in the 1960s that mental illnesses—even serious ones like schizophrenia— were not real illnesses with biological causes.24, 25 In the psychedelic 60s, the naive idea was popular that schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis were merely alternative, non-conformist ways of experiencing reality. This radically skeptical view reflected a widely prevalent postmodernist (or relativist) notion that truth and reality are subjective and relative, and that there are many equally valid views of reality. Psychiatrists were viewed as agents of social control, enforcers of conformity.

That image, coupled with real incidents of abuse in over-crowded, underfunded, outdated mental asylums, and the paucity of available effective treatments for out of control psychotic patients, led to the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest view of psychiatry. Combined with other factors, all this contributed to massive de-institutionalization and the surge of homeless mentally ill people out onto urban streets, particularly in North America.

Research in biological psychiatry and brain science regained traction in the 1970s, gradually shifting perceptions back towards understanding serious mental disorders like schizophrenia as brain disorders, comparable to Alzheimer’s Disease. Psychiatric disorders differ from standard neurological disorders not in their underlying neural substrate, but in their complexity. Fortunately, I do not need to persuade this readership that the mind is the product of nothing but the brain, in interaction with the environment.

Psychosis and its Relation to Normal Irrationality

What is psychosis? Consider this case: A young woman thought that a paper napkin placed under her windshield wiper was a message to her that her coworkers would hurt her and make her cry (she would need a napkin to wipe her eyes). She inferred the same thing from a napkin that she found the following day lying near her morning newspaper outside her front door. She took this as confirmation of her suspicions. She had also seen the word “loser” carved into the snow outside her house a few months earlier and now realized that it must refer to her and that it was written by the coworkers. She said that the same word had been written in the snow outside a neighbor’s house on that occasion, which she took to mean that the coworkers were telling all her neighbors about her. (Her husband told me that their house is next to a school, and that hundreds of high school students walk past their house every day. The husband figured that the writing in the snow was just school kids fooling around and had nothing to do with their family or their home. But she was not persuaded). She also thought that there was an abundance of Apartment Rental Guide flyers posted in her neighbourhood, and that these were directed at her personally, trying to harass her and convey a message to her that she should move from her house. She started to believe that graffiti in the neighbourhood contained messages directed at her and believed that she could read specific messages in the graffiti scrawl, all pertaining to her. She started to think that this was the case not only for graffiti in her neighbourhood, but throughout the entire city.

Psychosis is a general term referring to abnormal mental states in which people lose touch with reality. This loss of touch typically manifests as delusions and/or hallucinations. Some people suffering psychosis may also become disorganized in their thought processes, and some may exhibit other deficits such as loss of motivation.

There are many causes of psychosis, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), severe non-bipolar depression, dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s), drug-induced states, and a wide range of general medical conditions affecting the brain.

Psychosis has traditionally been considered a highly abnormal state, one that for practical purposes is categorically distinct from normal mental states. It is practically synonymous with the colloquial terms insanity or madness. In this sense, it would appear to be the least likely mental phenomenon to exist on a continuum. Nevertheless, increasingly, the evidence has been pointing in that direction, and psychiatrists have been questioning the very definition of terms like “delusion.”26

It is common for people to experience transient or even chronic psychotic symptoms without showing signs of any standard category of psychotic disorder.27, 28 A cross-national WHO study28 found evidence that “within the dimension of reality distortion…, the more symptoms the subject has, the worse [their] functioning and health [is],” even among those who did not meet the criteria for a disorder. There is suggestive evidence that certain kinds of subtle cognitive deficits may be associated with being prone to psychotic-like thinking or perception in the general population.27 Cognitive deficits are known to be more strongly associated with schizophrenia.29 In a sense, the brain’s cognitive checks and balances may be malfunctioning, so the usual reality checks that prevent our irrationality from getting too exaggerated are lost in psychosis.

Apart from the issue of subclinical, but nevertheless identifiable, delusions not meeting the additional criteria for a mental disorder, there is no definitive dividing line between delusions and more general irrational fixed beliefs. Delusions are defined in DSM-5 as “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence” (p. 87). Readers of Skeptic will require no elaboration of the point that weird, irrational beliefs are rampantly prevalent in the general population, and that people with such beliefs often continue to hold them (indeed, even more strongly) despite being confronted with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, the result of a psychological process called cognitive dissonance.

Delusions are more specifically defined as “fixed, false beliefs, strongly held and immutable in the face of refuting evidence, that are not consonant with the person’s educational, social, and cultural background.”30 (Thus, Richard Dawkins’ use of the term “The God Delusion,”31 while an effective rhetorical device, would be a clinically invalid application of the term “delusion” in a psychiatric clinic.) Michael Shermer has given us many varied examples of the normal human brain as a “belief engine” in his book The Believing Brain,32 demonstrating how “From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning.” He continues: “Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality. Once beliefs are formed, the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs.”32

In the general population, suggestibility and credulity also play a large role in irrational beliefs. Clearly, some people are much more suggestible than others. Critical thinking skills do not come naturally to most people and need to be formally learned. Well-described universal human cognitive errors are typically at play in irrational beliefs. As readers of Skeptic know all too well, critical thinking is incompletely correlated with general intelligence and with educational level. As a criticalthinking skeptic, don’t be too complacent though. You may be relatively more immune to irrational thinking, but psychosis is a powerful phenomenon— I’ve known many strongly scientifically-oriented patients to form bizarre delusions.

Not only delusions, but hallucinations too, may occur in otherwise mentally well people—described for example by Oliver Sacks in his book Hallucinations, in which the neurologi st also recounts his own hallucinations.33

Dopamine, Normal Attention and Psychosis

Psychosis has been shown to involve a state of overactivation of certain brain dopamine circuits. Dopamine is one of the brain’s neurotransmitters— a chemical transmitting messages between neurons. This is one of the important reasons why certain street drugs can induce psychosis—they over-activate dopamine systems. It is also why antipsychotic drugs that block dopamine transmission improve psychosis.

Part of the mechanism of delusions might be that dopamine imbues stimuli perceived by the brain with abnormal salience (prominence).34,35,36 In other words, dopamine marks a stimulus as an important signal, against a background of “noise.” Dopamine is often referred to as a “reward chemical,” but reinforcement would be a better term than reward. Dopamine reinforces (and orients) attention and motivation. When dopamine gets activated in our brains by a particular stimulus or action, it is nature’s way of telling us that something is important for us—nature is telling us that we ought to focus on that stimulus or to persist in that action. Brain reward/reinforcement mechanisms play a crucial role in selectively reinforcing important learned information (or ideas) or important learned behaviours.

Many street drugs essentially hijack the brain’s reward/reinforcement mechanisms by causing intense over-stimulation of dopamine circuits. This leads addicts to become excessively attentive to drug cues and motivated to repeatedly seek out anything related to that drug. In addition, these same street drugs have the potential to trigger psychosis in a susceptible proportion of people.

When we detect more “signal” relative to “noise” (for example, in an indistinct visual picture), then we identify more patterns. If our signal to noise detection is too high, we tend to identify patterns where none exist.37, 38 This is what Shermer calls “patternicity,” the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise (think of the woman and the paper napkins, flyers and graffiti). A problem that has been associated with dopamine under-activity is Attention Deficit Disorder. For people with ADD, activities need to be very salient (e.g., novel), and preferably continuously novel, to grab and hold their attention and interest and to sustain their motivation to persist in an activity.

Newer research suggests that dopamine plays an important role in error detection, helping to determine whether a perception meets expectations or predictions.39 When there is a discrepancy or error between expectations and perception (i.e., the perception of a stimulus or the outcome of a behavior does not match expectations), then dopamine release might mark that event as important, novel and warranting attention (salient). If the perception exceeds expectations, it may be experienced as rewarding and the person may seek to repeat the experience. Part of the mechanism of psychosis might pertain to a defect in error-detection mechanisms or prediction error.32, 40

Some people may be predisposed for genetic or other reasons to develop a state of dopamine overactivity, which may or may not reach clinical disorder proportions (impairment of functioning, etc.). Schizophrenia, which is characterized by other impairments besides psychosis, may be conceptualized as “dopamine dysregulation in the context of a compromised brain.”36

The Belief That Everything Happens for a Reason”

The most common type of delusion is called referential delusion: when an individual with psychosis becomes convinced that random coincidences have intentional and personal reference to them. My patients regularly tell me that events in their lives are being contrived or influenced surreptitiously, or that their environment is somehow being manipulated. They detect “hidden messages” and “signs.” They tell me that these observations “couldn’t possibly just be a random coincidence.” They present all kinds of “evidence” that they consider irrefutable. These types of delusion are a central characteristic of paranoia and of grandiosity. For the psychotic person, everything happens for a reason, and it’s all about him or her. Sound familiar?

People normally and instinctively tend to seek and find purpose and meaning in their lives. It is an intuitive human tendency to assume that not only moment-to-moment events, but life and the universe as a whole, are inherently purposeful, intentional and designed, that “things are meant to be.” As an aside, it is worth noting something else here from my experience as a psychiatrist working with many people who are experiencing great adversity and who are otherwise mentally well: The belief that “everything happens for a reason”—that our lives are overseen by a higher power, is a doubleedged sword. It can be reassuring and comforting, but can also lead to an existential crisis, feelings of abandonment, and bitter anguish, that leads those who suffer cruel adversity to ask “Why me?!”

Shermer lucidly articulates an evolutionary psychology theory of why in the first place humans are so strongly predisposed to see meaning, purpose and “agency” (i.e., willful action or deliberate intention) in events: These human traits most likely evolved to detect predators and prey and to cooperate as social animals, by readily identifying patterns and by inferring other beings’ intentions from those patterns.

Psychosis has the effect of amplifying and exaggerating this natural tendency to perceive intentionality, or to believe in special purpose. Dopamine over-activity may erroneously reinforce the pairing (learning) of associations between what would otherwise be unrelated, coincidental events, by arbitrarily marking them as salient.34,35,36,41 In other words, random events now seem imbued with importance and meaning, when they should not be. Essentially, in psychosis, changes in dopamine transmission can lead the brain to have difficulty determining whether a stimulus is important or irrelevant.39

Lesser Shades of Psychoticism in the General Population

The lifetime prevalence of (strictly defined) schizophrenia appears to be 0.3–0.7 percent of the population (DSM-5, 102). Bear in mind that there are several additional types of DSM-5 defined primary psychotic disorders, and many other secondary causes of transient psychosis. Besides these disorders, studies show that around four percent of the (U.S.) population have significant enduring oddness in thinking and behavior defined as Schizotypal Personality Disorder (DSM-5, 657). This is thought to be on the schizophrenia spectrum and is more prevalent among first-degree biological relatives of people with schizophrenia. Paranoid Personality Disorder is another disorder defined by enduring irrational tendencies (predominantly distrust and suspiciousness) (DSM-5, 649). But the spectrum/continuum of odd psychotic-like thinking in the general population probably extends quite a lot further than these categories.

One research construct that attempts to define the more significant end of the spectrum of proneness to odd thinking in the general population is the personality dimension of “Psychoticism.” An updated definition of this personality domain is provided in DSM-5 in the section on alternative models requiring further discussion and research. The definition includes the characteristic of “exhibiting a wide range of culturally incongruent odd, eccentric or unusual behaviors and cognitions” (DSM-5, 781). Psychoticism is considered one of five “maladaptive variants of the five domains of the extensively validated and replicated model of normal personality known as the ‘Big Five,’ or Five Factor Model of personality (FFM)” (DSM-5, 773).

The FFM describes personality dimensions in the general population. The normal FFM dimension of which Psychoticism is conceived as being a maladaptive variant at one end of the scale, is the dimension known as “Openness”—referring to openness to new experiences and ideas. This sounds like a good thing, and it generally is. It may be associated with creativity. But in the FFM, extremes on either end of any of the five dimensions are regarded as relatively maladaptive. People who are excessively “open” are overly suggestible and credulous. As skeptics like to say, “Let’s be openminded, but not so open-minded that our brains fall out.” This trait of excessive openness probably describes a lot of people in the general population who are susceptible to irrational “weird” beliefs (paranormal, etc.) that fall short of psychoticism.


In summary, there is increasing agreement in the field of psychiatry that most mental disorders exist on a continuum with normal human experience and that there is overlap between disorders. Mental disorders are the product of a complex interplay between genes and environment, and between the individual and society. Psychiatric disorders reveal much about normal human traits, as they tend to be amplifications of those tendencies. Operationalizing definitions of mental disorders is an ongoing challenge due to their complexity. For experienced clinicians (when unencumbered by insurance considerations) the DSM is just a guide, not to be interpreted literally or rigidly but rather to be applied with a healthy degree of skepticism. END

  1. Sorboro, J. 2007. “The Trouble with Psychiatry.” Skeptic, 2007. 13(3) p. 37–43.
  2. Sorboro, J. 2010. “Prognosis Negative: Psychiatry and the Foibles of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V (DSMV).” Skeptic. 2010. 15(3) p. 44–49.
  3. Adam, D. 2013. “Mental Health: On the Spectrum.” Nature. 496(7446): 416–8.
  4. American Psychiatric Association DSM-5 Task Force. 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  5. American Psychiatric Association, 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  6. Frances, A., DSM-5 Is Guide Not Bible —Ignore Its Ten Worst Changes. (date posted December 2, 2012)
  7. Frances, A., Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life. 2013, New York City: William Morrow, HarperCollins.
  8. Greenberg, G., The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry. 2013, London: Blue Rider Press, Penguin Group, 1–4.
  9. Greenberg, G., Turn on, Tune in, Drop out (blog). (Posted May 31, 2013)
  10. Satel, S. 2013, “Why the Fuss Over DSM-5?” New York Times. (Posted May 11, 2013)
  11. Hyman, S.E. 2007. “Can Neuroscience Be Integrated into the DSM-5?” Nat Rev Neurosci. 8(9): 725–32.
  12. Regier, D.A., et al. 2009. “The Conceptual Development of DSM-5.” Am J Psychiatry. 166(6): 645–50.
  13. Kupfer, D.J. and D.A. Regier. 2011. “Neuroscience, Clinical Evidence, and the Future of Psychiatric Classification in DSM-5.” Am J Psychiatry. 168(7): 672–4.
  14. Paris, J. and J. Phillips. 2013. Making the DSM-5: Concepts and Controversies. New York: Springer, 87.
  15. Frances, A. 2009. “Whither DSM-5?” Br J Psychiatry. 195(5): 391–2.
  16. Insel, T.R. 2013. “Director’s Blog: Transforming Diagnosis.” (Posted April 29, 2013)
  17. Belluck, P. and B. Carey 2013. “Psychiatry’s Guide Is Out of Touch With Science, Experts Say.” (Posted May 6, 2013)
  18. National Institute of Mental Health, NIMH Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). (Posted June, 2011)
  19. Insel, T., et al. 2010. “Research Domain Criteria (RDoC): Toward a New Classification Framework for Research on Mental Disorders.” Am J Psychiatry. 167(7): 748–51.
  20. Doward, J. 2013. “Psychiatrists Under Fire in Mental Health Battle: British Psychological Society to Launch Attack On Rival Profession, Casting Doubt On Biomedical Model of Mental Illness.” (Posted May 12, 2013)
  21. Frances, A. 2013. “The Inmates Seem to Have Taken Over the Asylum.” (Posted May 12, 2013)
  22. Insel, T.R. and J.A. Lieberman. 2013. “DSM-5 and RDoC: Shared Interests.” (Posted May 13, 2013)
  23. Lieberman, J.A., 2013. “DSM-5: Setting the Record Straight.“ (Posted May 18, 2013)
  24. Wikipedia, “The Myth of Mental Illness.” (Accessed August 26, 2013)
  25. Wikipedia, R. D. Laing—On Mental Illness. (Accessed August 26, 2013)
  26. Reznek, L. 2010. Delusions and the Madness of the Masses. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  27. van Os, J., et al. 2009. “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Psychosis Continuum: Evidence for a Psychosis Proneness-Persistence-Impairment Model of Psychotic Disorder.“ Psychol Med. 39(2): 179–95.
  28. Nuevo, R., et al., 2012.“The Continuum of Psychotic Symptoms In the General Population: a Cross-national Study”. Schizophr Bull, 38(3): 475–85.
  29. Lewis, R. 2004. “Should Cognitive Deficit Be a Diagnostic Criterion for Schizophrenia?” J Psychiatry Neurosci. 29(2): 102–13.
  30. Sadock, B.J., et al., eds. 2009. Kaplan & Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1080.
  31. Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  32. Shermer, M. 2011. The Believing Brain. New York: Times Books, 5, 124, 127.
  33. Sacks, O. 2012. Hallucinations. 2012, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  34. Kapur, S. 2003. “Psychosis as a State of Aberrant Salience: A Framework Linking Biology, Phenomenology, and Pharmacology in Schizophrenia.” Am J Psychiatry. 160(1): 13-23.
  35. Kapur, S., R. Mizrahi, and M. Li. 2005. “From Dopamine to Salience to Psychosis—Linking Biology, Pharmacology and Phenomenology of Psychosis.” Schizophr Res. 79(1): 59–68.
  36. Howes, O.D. and S. Kapur. 2009. “The Dopamine Hypothesis of Schizophrenia: Version III—The Final Common Pathway.” Schizophr Bull. 35(3): 549–62. Epub 2009 Mar 26.
  37. Krummenacher, P., et al. 2010. “Dopamine, Paranormal Belief, and the Detection of Meaningful Stimuli.” J Cogn Neurosci. 22(8): 1670–81.
  38. Shermer, M., 2010. TED talk. “The Pattern Behind Self-Deception.” (date posted June 2010)
  39. Zorumski, C.F. and E.H. Rubin. 2011. Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience: A Primer. New York: Oxford University Press, 76, 77.
  40. Corlett, P.R., et al., 2010. “Toward a Neurobiology of Delusions.” Prog Neurobiol, 92(3): 345–69.
  41. Menon, M., et al., 2011. “Exploring the Neural Correlates of Delusions of Reference.” Biol Psychiatry, 70(12): 1127–33.
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Neanderthal Man: In Search of
Lost Genomes

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Svante Pääbo is the founder of the field of ancient DNA and is the director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. In Neanderthal Man he tells the story of his mission to answer the question of what we can learn from the genes of our closest evolutionary relative, culminating in his sequencing of the Neanderthal genome in 2009. We learn that Neanderthal genes offer a unique window into the lives of our hominin relatives and may hold the key to unlocking the mystery of why humans survived while Neanderthals went extinct. Drawing on genetic and fossil clues, Pääbo explores what is known about the origin of modern humans and their relationship to the Neanderthals and describes the fierce debate surrounding the nature of the two species’ interactions. Order Neanderthal Man from Amazon.

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This week on Skepticality, Derek has a conversation with Jason Silva. Jason is known for his work as the host of the Emmy Nominated National Geographic channel television show, Brain Games. Jason is a self-proclaimed “wonder junkie” who has been pushing the ideas of inspiration, science, technology, and imagination not only through television but also via new media, TED Talks and anywhere else he can. Find out more about what made Jason set out to inspire others with such passionate intesity.

Daniel Loxton on stage at The Amazing Meeting 2014 (Photo by Daivd Patton)

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Last week, the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “The Amazing Meeting 2014” conference in Las Vegas brought together many of the most engaging voices in science and skepticism for a challenging and joyful celebration of ideas. The Skeptics Society was in the spotlight, with Michael Shermer, Donald Prothero, and Junior Skeptic’s Daniel Loxton taking the stage for feature presentations.

In this week’s eSkeptic, we share the text of Loxton’s well-received speech on skeptical history, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” Although designed as a live multimedia presentation, we hope this distilled format will give a sense of the passion behind this unusual piece.

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A Rare and Beautiful Thing

by Daniel Loxton

Hello! Thanks for having me.

I work for Michael Shermer and Pat Linse at the Skeptics Society, where I’ve done the Junior Skeptic section of Skeptic magazine for about 12 years, writing on everything from alien abduction to crystal skulls to the Curse of King Tut.

Generally, I spend my time making things, mostly for kids. I make pictures, often with my friend Jim Smith; I write stories; I do research.

To the best of my ability, I do what skeptics have done for decades:

  • Study paranormal and pseudoscientific claims;
  • Solve mysteries;
  • Tell the public what we have learned.

As a footnote to doing scientific skepticism, I also do some writing about this kind of work. I do a little blogging, and I’ve written op-eds (PDF) and historical explorations (PDF) about the principles and ethics and craft of what we do.

My inward-looking discussions in articles and tweets and interviews often have to do with the challenges and “scope” of traditional, scientific skepticism—describing the uniqueness of the skeptical project; exploring its contested boundaries with other parallel rationalist movements; and identifying areas for clarification, development, and improvement.

But today I want to see this strange, rare jewel, with all its flaws and inclusions, in a different kind of light. Rather than talking about what makes skepticism difficult, I want to argue that skepticism is beautiful.

This may seem like a strange term to use. Skepticism has a reputation as blunt and plodding. Even skepticism’s friends often treat it as something a little embarrassing. As Stephen Jay Gould observed, “Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities—like garbage disposal—that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration.”

I love the comparison with trash collecting, because it emphasizes the unending labor, unsavory subject matter and practical usefulness of the skeptical project. It’s a comparison many have made.

“The scientific debunker’s job may be compared to that of the trash collector,” said science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp in 1986. “The fact that the garbage truck goes by today,” he wrote, “does not mean that there will not be another load tomorrow. But if the garbage were not collected at all, the results would be much worse, as some cities found when the sanitation workers went on strike.”

There may seem little beauty in this image… but as an artist, it’s my job to look for it!

Happily, artists are not the only ones who do this, as Richard Feynman once explained in reference to the beauty of a flower. “There are all kinds of interesting questions,” he said, “that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower.”

Now, it’s one thing to find beauty in a flower.

But I believe it is also there to be seen in skepticism’s noble tradition of necessary service.

When I talk about “beauty” I’m obviously stepping outside of the empirical framework of scientific skepticism. I’m speaking about that work as a person who comes to my job with personal values, moral intuitions, and sources of meaning and purpose.

These are what motivate me to do this work.

I’d like to play some remarks from JREF President DJ Grothe [video clip from this lecture]:

And you know that I’ve never heard someone who’s really passionate about comic books…even if they’re obsessed with comic books—I’ve never heard anyone refer to their love of comic books as “a calling.” I hear skeptics, honest, use that term frequently. … The passion I feel for magic is unlike the passion I feel for skepticism. It lacks a component that my love of skepticism has. Why is that? I submit that you are here today…and that my passion for advancing skepticism in society is different than my love of comic books or maybe playing video games on my Xbox 360…because skepticism is more than just a hobby, I’ll argue. And it’s more than just a club…. I’ll argue today that you’re involved in skepticism—here it is—because skepticism is a humanism.

I happen to identify personally as a secular humanist. But I know, and Grothe knows, that the skeptical community is broader than that. The people in this audience identify with a diversity of faith traditions and schools of thought.

Grothe used “humanism” here in this very broad, perhaps universal sense:

People from all backgrounds feel moved by goodness—and some people see goodness in skepticism.

Film critic Roger Ebert observed that the visceral emotional experience of “Elevation”—of spiritual uplift— comes “not through messages, or happy endings or sad ones, but in moments when characters we believe in—even an animated robot garbageman—achieve something good.”

I’d go even further: we feel that straight-to-the-spine sense of Elevation when we see someone choose to try to do something good.

Ebert also once said [video clip from documentary film Life Itself]:

For me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

Stories do that. True stories do that.

When I saw this trailer, I was struck strongly by this phrase—“a machine that generates empathy”—because I remembered saying something similar.

In 2007, I was a regular listener to the popular Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. Today I count the hosts as friends, but at that time they were the voices of strangers. Yet I felt a powerful sense of community, of fraternity with these people, because they spoke to the subjects of my passions, and because their ideas and laughter came into my home every week. And so I found myself tremendously moved when I heard the news of the death of co-host Perry DeAngelis, and heard the sorrow in the voices of his friends. I found myself writing to them, asking,

What does one say to strangers about the loss of their close friend? …I don’t know. But I’m struck by the importance…of what Perry built with you. I’m one of those who believes wholeheartedly in skepticism as a project to reduce harm to real people. 

Something like the SGU is a fair sort of thing to leave behind: not a hobby, not an entertainment, but a machine for helping people.

If skepticism is a machine for helping people, it’s a machine of tremendous antiquity. Not long ago, I saw this tweet from comedy talk-show host Craig Ferguson:

Junior Skeptic # 45 (bound within Skeptic magazine issue 17.4)

Cover of Junior Skeptic 45, bound inside Skeptic 17.4.

Lucian was a second-century Roman writer and debunker. I published a Junior Skeptic in 2012 about Lucian and his James Randi-like battle against a celebrity psychic, Alexander of Abonoteichus, who founded a snake-god cult.

It’s a case which is not well known in these forgetful days, but which has been a touchstone for skeptics for centuries.

In 1935, psychologist and activist skeptic Joseph Jastrow wrote about Lucian and Alexander in his book Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief:

“The temptation to deceive is as old as the human race,” he wrote, “and so is the inclination to succumb to deception, which is credulity.”

To this we might add that the thirst to investigate is just as old. For as Jastrow goes on,

“There is an instance of it, classical in every sense, which, written eighteen hundred years ago, reads like a modern exposé, even to the details of ways and means.”

To read Lucian’s book on Alexander the Oracle-Monger is to be shocked by familiarity. I almost beg you to read it—it’s short—but I’ll tell you some of that story:

… Alexander was a con man who graduated to cult leader using tricks that are still used in fortunetelling and mediumship today. Lucian describes him as an exceptionally handsome man with a clear, deep, persuasive voice:

In understanding, resource, acuteness,” Lucian recalled, “he was far above other men; curiosity, receptiveness, memory…— all these were his in overflowing measure. But he used them for the worst purposes.

Establishing himself as a prophet, Alexander spread rumours in Abonoteichus about an imminent miracle—about the advent of a god on Earth. When he had stoked up a fever of public interest, he ran out one morning into the city marketplace wearing only a loin-cloth. He climbed up onto a high altar— wild-eyed, raving at the crowd. He cried out that the time had come! A god was coming to Abonoteichus right now!

He ran to a temple construction site, followed by an amazed throng of men, women and children. Singing hymns, Alexander splashed into the mud and water of the excavation for the foundation for the temple. He plunged a bowl into the mud, and in triumph, lifted out a miracle.

It was a goose egg.

When Alexander broke open the egg into his hollowed palm, it was seen to contain a live snake. It was, he said, the newborn god.

[T]he crowd could see it stirring and winding about his fingers,” Lucian wrote, and “they raised a shout, hailed the God, blessed the city, and every mouth was full of prayers — for treasure and wealth and health and all the other good things that he might give.

Well, this bit with the egg was a magic trick. Lucian explained how it was done. The egg was blown out in advance, resealed with a small snake inside, and planted at the construction site to be found on cue.

But here’s the thing—this exact same effect is used to devastating impact by psychic scammers today. In the modern Boojoo or “egg curse” scam, fortunetellers hatch snakes, worms, hair or blood from an apparently ordinary egg or tomato, revealing that the mark—or her money—is cursed, and must be cleansed by the fortuneteller.

Every year, countless people lose their savings to a scam that goes back to days of the Roman Empire!

A few days later Alexander opened shop in a dimly-lit audience chamber. Miraculously, the snake god was now fully grown—its writhing body played by a large python, and its human-like head by a handcrafted prop. The wonderstruck crowd was hustled past this special effect before they could look too closely.


But this was all stage-dressing, patter for the trick that Alexander built his business on, which was fortunetelling. Alexander understood, Lucian said, that “human life is under the absolute dominion of two mighty principles, fear and hope, and…whether a man is most swayed by the one or by the other, what he must most depend upon and desire is a knowledge of futurity.”

Which Alexander was happy to sell.


He “directed everyone to write down in a scroll…what he especially wished to learn, to tie it up, and to seal it with wax or clay….”

Alexander took these sealed questions into an inner chamber. There, in communion with the god, he wrote an answer on the outside of each scroll, and returned it “with the seal upon it, just as it was”—apparently unopened.

Well, this is a trick too, and psychics still perform it today.

There are many variations, but the basic secret is, as Lucian put it, obvious: Alexander “contrived various methods of undoing the seals, read the questions, answered them as seemed good, and then folded, sealed, and returned them, to the great astonishment of the recipients.”

Lucian described a few of the techniques he knew for doing this, such as sliding a hot needle under a wax seal. If the scroll couldn’t be opened, the questioner could be pumped for clues, or answers could be written in mystic gibberish. (The services of an interpreter were available for an additional fee.)

Today, skeptical investigators such as Joe Nickell often seek to trap psychics who perform readings of sealed messages. They may provide false information for the psychic to incorporate into their reading, or attempt to mark the message in a way that would reveal substitution, or to make the message difficult to open without leaving a sign.

Eighteen hundred years ago, Lucian did the exact same thing.

“Many such traps, in fact, were set for him by me and by others,” Lucian wrote.

Lucian hands scroll

He sent well-sealed scrolls which asked one thing, but allowed his servants to believe they asked something else. When Alexander’s answers came back, they reflected the information that could be pumped from the servants who delivered the scrolls, not what was written inside. On another occasion, Lucian sent money for eight questions, and got back eight meaningless answers. But the tamperproof scroll he sent asked only this:

“When will Alexander’s imposture be detected?”

In some instances it was detected. Like other psychics, Alexander was ultimately making it up—and he was frequently, sometimes horrifically, wrong.

In a case that mirrors modern psychic Sylvia Browne’s incorrect declaration that kidnapping victim Shawn Hornbeck had been murdered, Alexander pronounced that a missing young man from a wealthy family had been killed by his servants. Those poor people were tried, found guilty, and executed by means of “wild beasts.”

But the young man was alive. He’d been traveling.

When this was discovered, another skeptic stood up in a large crowd and bravely confronted Alexander about the blood on his hands. Alexander’s response? He ordered his audience to stone the skeptic to death — which they attempted to do.

Despite opposition from skeptics, Alexander’s influence only grew. He bound wealthy clients into unshakable loyalty. He advised military planners. He sold invented cures, and spells of protection from plague.

The authorities refused to take action. Alexander’s psychic career continued until he died wealthy and powerful at almost 70 years old—which we know because Lucian told us about it.

Why did Lucian do that?

What made him study and record and critique Alexander’s career of paranormal deception?

While Alexander lived, the answer was one that has smoldered in the hearts of skeptics for almost two thousand years:

When unfounded claims burn out of control, people get hurt.

Alexander was dangerous. He preyed on people. His lies sent innocent people to their annihilation. He sold deadly false confidence in times of plague, sent soldiers into disaster when they might have been kept from harm’s way.

There was a clear need for someone to do something—and it fell on skeptics like Lucian to try.

Lucian continued this work of skeptical scholarship even after Alexander’s death.


Because Lucian was not alone in that work. His book on Alexander was written at the request of his friend Celsus, who had written debunking books of his own, exposing the fakery of sorcerers.

An account of Alexander’s trickery was no “trifling task,” Lucian objected to his friend. Also, he had ethical qualms about writing it:

I confess to being a little ashamed both on your account and my own. There are you asking that the memory of an arch-scoundrel should be perpetuated in writing; here am I going seriously into an investigation of this sort.

A scam artist like Alexander did not deserve study, Lucian said, “but to be torn to pieces in the amphitheatre by apes or foxes, with a vast audience looking on.”

But Lucian told himself that there was value in this work—that there were constructive lessons to learn and teach in the study of scam artists and occult beliefs.

We may be glad that he did.

“Lucian was far more than an exposer of false prophets,” wrote Joseph Jastrow in 1935. “He is entitled to remembrance as one of the first students of the strange beliefs of men.”

We are all students in that same school of the weird and the wild and the wicked. And for centuries, students of skepticism have turned back to learn from older texts.

Carl Sagan explicitly linked the practices of modern psychics, including those described in Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia, to the criminal practices of Alexander. Sagan also linked the “useful work” of the modern skeptical movement to Lucian and his colleagues.

Philosopher David Hume retold the story of Lucian and Alexander in 1748 in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. In doing so, Hume wrote what may be the single most important sentence ever written about why skepticism exists as a movement.

Hume wrote,

“But, though much to be wished, it does not always happen, that every Alexander meets with a Lucian, ready to expose and detect his impostures.”

For as long as there have been claims that sound too good to be true, there have been people who felt drawn to the task of finding out. And always, throughout history, at all times, those people have been too scattered, and too few.

But the dawn of an organized skeptical movement brought light to a shared horizon. It unified what had been scattered. It drew together people—very different in many ways—who found they were talking about the same things.

Faces of skepticism

Scientific skepticism recognized a literature of common insights, connected the people who studied the fringe, and showed that their investigations collectively comprised a distinct field of study.

There are people in this room with us today who have fought for skepticism for forty, fifty, even sixty years.

How many careers were spent, how many lives were lived in service of skepticism before even those people were born?

Few people begin to realize the depth or the breadth or the scale of the skeptical efforts which have taken place in previous generations.

Joseph Rinn

The man (above) with the chalkboard is Joseph Rinn, demonstrating mediumistic trickery for a press syndicate in 1920. For decades, Rinn was in the thick of every important occult battle in America. He formed a New York-based skeptics group in 1905.

Rinn was present for confessions by the Fox sisters, the founders of Spiritualism.

He took Harry Houdini to his first séance.

And while young Houdini was busy building his showbiz career—was himself performing the talking to the dead routine he would later realize “bordered on crime”—Rinn was arguing as a skeptic in the media that, “Wonderful phenomena demand wonderful evidence….”

When Rinn’s old friend Houdini finally did get into the fight, he arrived as a mighty champion. He brought skill and knowledge, and wealth and fame. Houdini studied and investigated and wrote books, and gave demonstrations.


Harry Houdini and Senator Capper (Senate District Com.), 2/26/26 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

He went to Congress to fight for tougher laws against fraudulent fortunetellers in the nation’s capital. He fought with passion, and gravity of purpose.

And he lost.

There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.

Houdini’s mission continued even after his death in 1926.

Rose Mackenberg, the head of Houdini’s team of undercover agents, continued to pursue psychic scam artists as a private investigator, lecturer, and consulting expert for decades. Having investigated crimes of all types, Mackenberg believed “the most vicious criminals in America are the charlatans who betray and plunder their heartsick victims in the name of the dear, departed dead”—especially those who work in organized gangs.

Rose Mackenberg

She called them “conscienceless scoundrels devoid of even the most elementary feelings of decency and pity,” and was proud to have helped put many behind bars.

It was her life’s work.

In 1931, inspired by Houdini’s example, the Society of American Magicians joined forces with the NYPD to try to rid New York City of its burden of paranormal scammers.

Detective Mary Sullivan

Left: clipping from 1931, July 18, New York Times, p9. Right: Detective Mary Sullivan, from her autobiography My Double Life: The Story of a New York Policewoman (1938)

Junior Skeptic # 46 (bound within Skeptic magazine issue 18.1)

For more on the lives and skeptical careers of Rose Mackenberg and Mary Sullivan, see Junior Skeptic 46, bound inside Skeptic 18.1.

The officer in charge was the head of the Policewomen’s Bureau, Detective Mary Sullivan, a pioneer who joined the force in 1911. She was the second woman in the NYPD ever to be raised to Detective, First Grade, and the first to have served on the Homicide Squad.

At that time, policewomen specialized in undercover work on crimes such as shoplifting, quack medicine, and fortunetelling. When she joined with the magicians, Sullivan had already spent 20 years busting psychic scams as a cop:

I had a personal reason for finding the fortuneteller hunt attractive,” she wrote. “When I was a child my five-year-old brother wandered out of the house after mass one Sunday and was never seen again. Tortured by uncertainty as to whether he was alive or dead, my mother turned to fortunetellers for guidance. For years they led her on from one false hope to another, telling her that he would be brought home by shipboard the following spring; that a dark woman was holding him prisoner in a basement; that we would see him on the street when he was fifteen years old. The repeated disappointments my mother suffered caused her as much pain as if the boy had been lost to her many times instead of only once. My recollection of all this made it doubly pleasant to me to flash my badge before an astonished seeress and tell her that she and her paraphernalia were about to depart for a ride.

Reducing this intimate kind of harm matters. Seeking justice for victims matters—especially when few people care.

As magician Jamy Ian Swiss asked on this stage [video clip from this lecture]:

How can you say psychic fraud doesn’t matter when there is a steady stream of news stories about victims who give up life savings to psychic con artists? Do you think it mattered to the victims?

There is much more to skeptical history than we can talk about today. There is more than I will learn in my lifetime.

Here are just a few of the skeptical books published before I was born. [Sixty book titles in reverse chronological order from 1974 to 1580.]

Sixty book titles in reverse chronological order from 1974 to 1580.

Skepticism is a bright, shining thread that runs through the whole of the human tapestry. We can follow that thread of curiosity and conscience—in places with difficulty—through the entire length of the history of civilization.

Skepticism is part of who we are. It is part of who we always have been. It is a deep and essential part of our better nature.

And it is beautiful to me.

Scientific skepticism connects us with lives lived, struggles undertaken by men and women who lived and fought and questioned and challenged—and sometimes risked everything—decades, even centuries ago. We are brothers and sisters to those who have—for millennia—chosen this particular way to help.

We are connected to those who refused to accept the deceitful cruelties of their times— connected to the people who felt called to light candles…because they cursed the darkness!

There is beauty in this choice in life—beauty in the attempt to push back the night.

But candles do more than hold back the darkness. That small, warm light also allows us to take our children by the hand and show them how big and how wonderful the universe really is.

Every child deserves to see from those great heights. It’s a view that belongs to everyone.

And the moral calling to share that view is beautiful.

Skepticism is lifted up by the belief that knowledge can help people, that truth is better than falsehood—that there is more to the world than cynicism and deceit.

As Michael Shermer has said, skepticism “is a celebration of the scientific spirit and the joy inherent in exploring the world’s great mysteries even when final answers are not forthcoming. The intellectual journey matters, not the destination.”

Thank you. END

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Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction
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Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
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50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior
by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, and Beyerstein
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
A New York Times Bestseller
by Daniel C. Dennett
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Dr. Daphne J. Fairbairn, on Demand
Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom

Daphne Fairbairn

While we joke that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our gender differences can’t compare to those of other animals. For instance: the male garden spider spontaneously dies after mating with a female more than 50 times his size. Female cichlids must guard their eggs and larvae—even from the hungry appetites of their own partners. And male blanket octopuses employ a copulatory arm longer than their own bodies to mate with females that outweigh them by four orders of magnitude. Why do these gender gulfs exist? This lecture, based on her book, explores some of the most extraordinary sexual differences in the animal world. From the fields of Spain to the deep oceans, evolutionary biologist Daphne Fairbairn uncovers the unique and bizarre characteristics that exist in these remarkable species and the special strategies they use to maximize reproductive success. Fairbairn also considers humans and explains that although we are keenly aware of our own sexual differences, they are unexceptional within the vast animal world.

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Dr. Christopher French
MonsterTalk # 85
Alienable Rites

What causes a person to be possessed? Are there demons? Is it mental illness? Is it abnormal neurology? Does exorcism work? in this episode of MonsterTalk, paranormal researcher psychologist Dr. Chris French joins us to discuss the psychology of demonic possession and exorcisms.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer recounts the time he was abducted by aliens. This is a review of Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, by Joel Achenbach. This review appeared in Skeptic magazine 7.4 (1999)

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ET Phone Me

by Michael Shermer

In the wee hours of the morning of August 8, 1983, I was abducted by aliens. I was traveling down a lonely rural highway just west of Haigler, NB, when a large craft with bright lights appeared and, despite my best efforts to resist, forced me into their vehicle. After regaining consciousness 90 minutes later, I was back on the road but with no memory of what transpired inside. These aliens, however, were not the stereotypical “grays” with bulbous heads and almond-shaped eyes. These looked just like humans, but I knew they were aliens because they had stiff little fingers.

Joel Achenbach would love this story because it fits the theme of his splendid new book so well—a fantastic yarn with a prosaic explanation that tells us far more about humans than aliens. In my case I had ridden a bicycle over 1250 miles nonstop from Santa Monica, CA, as part of the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America, stretching my ad hoc sleep deprivation experiment to 83 hours. The alien craft? My brightly lit motorhome. The aliens? My support crew. The lost 90 minutes? A sleep break. The stiff little fingers? The memory of a 60’s TV series, The Invaders, in which aliens shapeshifted into human forms but, for some peculiar reason, could not bend their pinkies.

What Achenbach would like about this story is what it tells us about how culture determines the content of our apparitions. The demon-haunted world of the Middle Ages was filled with tales of people abducted by incubi and succubi; in the spirit-haunted world of 19th-century England and America people were harassed by ghosts and apparitions. We no longer experience demons and spirits because, Achenbach says in a clever title double-entendre, our culture has been captured by aliens. From Star Trek and Star Wars to ET and XFiles on the pop culture front, and from NASA’s Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program to the Mars’ rock microbes on the scientific front, Achenbach shows just how powerful this theme is in our collective imagination. We live in an alien-haunted world.

Yet evidence for alien existence is, well, nonexistent, and this is where Achenbach’s narrative gets interesting. Humans are, by nature, pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, and we are quite adept at creating patterns whether they exist or not. Aliens are the Rorshach of our age, an ET inkblot of our unconscious hopes and fears, where superior intelligences with wisdom far beyond our comprehension have made, are making, or will make contact with Earth, and from these contacts we have, are, or will glean the knowledge we need to save ourselves and our planet. As Achenbach takes us on his “travelogue” through our alien-haunted world, we encounter everything from the sublime (the leaders of NASA, SETI, the Planetary Society and the Mars Society) to the ridiculous (the followers of the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, and Heaven’s Gate).

This is science writing at its best—I could not put the book down and read it on planes, taxis, and even during interview breaks on a book tour—and it should be required reading for all scientists who want to explain what it is they do. After years of “doodling around in alien country,” for example, Achenbach thinks the UFO phenomenon “can be viewed as an astrosociopolitical issue of great complexity, or, more simply, as a question of human psychology. Why do some people construct their world-views around ideas that other people find ludicrous? Where’s the fault line? It’s not intelligence or social class. It’s not like poor, fat, Velveeta-eating people believe in aliens and rich, thin, brie-eating people don’t.” (He does, however, identify my neck of the woods as alien central: “Aliens seem to be more prevalent in the West, and in California they’re simply taken for granted, more strange guests at the cocktail party.”)

And when Achenbach meets with alien true believers, such as Roswell afficionado Philip Corso, he confronts an uncomfortable choice: “Either he saw an alien corpse, and later became engaged in a massive program to reverse-engineer UFO technology, which in turn helped win the Cold War and stave off the full-bore alien invasion—or his tale is a lie. There’s not much middle ground there. How do you decide? Lacking direct information, one must go on feel and smell and instinct. You have to ask yourself if there might be a narcissistic impulse behind his book. You have to linger a moment on the wonderful penultimate sentence: ‘Sometimes, once in a very long while, you get the chance to save your country, your planet, and even your species at the same time.’ (And write a best-seller.)” That’s good prose.

Achenbach is a journalist, not a social scientist (thus accounting for his inability to construct obfuscating paragraph-long sentences sprinkled with “therefores,” “furthermores,” and “moreovers”), so don’t look for hypothesis testing of the latest social psychological theory of mass hysteria or cognitive dissonance. His insights into human nature instead come from a more basic and in many ways deeper understanding through real world experiences with the participants themselves (outsiders would be amazed to learn just how many psychological theories were constructed around the thoughts and behaviors of students cajoled into participating in their professors’ experiments). At the core of this secular religion, as with its theistic counterparts, is faith, the ultimate prophylactic against skeptics. When I read the following passage, in fact, I was jolted back in my seat:

The UFO movement’s strength is not in its evidence but in its overall narrative, its theme. It has an elaborate eschatology, a host of apostles, and a recurring theme of doom versus salvation. It is not the evidence of extraterrestrial creatures but, rather the idea of the Alien that makes ufology such a powerful faith. The skeptics can dismiss the purported tales of aliens and show the logical flaws in the story, but it will never make any difference. If an idea is sufficiently wonderful, if it springs from deep yearnings, it can easily beat back the yappings of logicans and skeptics and disbelieving journalists.

Abducted! How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, by Dr. Susan Clancy
How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

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So are Achenbach and myself (a disbelieving journalist and skeptic respectively) wasting our time tilting at alien windmills? What should we do when we confront that fault line between fantasy and reality? What Would Carl Do?, we might ask, paraphrasing the popular catch phrase of another faith. If, as Achenbach says, Sagan was “the gatekeeper of any serious discussion of extraterrestrial life,” the “go-to guy for anyone with a new idea,” and the man who decided “if a creative idea should be allowed into the lecture hall or instead left outside,” then what would Carl do when facing the veracity question? “Someone has to propose ideas at the boundaries of the plausible,” Sagan once said, “in order to so annoy the experimentalists or observationalists that they’ll be motivated to disprove the idea.” Yet Carl was also fond of quoting the skeptics’ mantra “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Enough of the blurry photographs, grainy videos, and anecdotes about things that go bump in the night. Until ET phones me I will have to settle for being amazed and amused by the tales of alien dreamers so well recounted in this beautifully written book. END

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Carbon Dating: A Comic Strip About Science, Pseudoscience, and Geeky Relationships

We all have irrational, ridiculous, and nonsensical ideas that we cling to. Maybe you’re deathly afraid of spiders, or GMOs, or gluten? That’s OK! If you aren’t, your friends probably are, and their Facebook posts will not let you forget it. That’s the driving theme behind Carbon Dating. If you can get people to laugh at their favorite pseudoscience, maybe they won’t take it so seriously.

Carbon Dating is a bi-weekly comic strip published free online and also in Skeptic magazine quarterly (as Carbon Comic).

Online currently, new comics are posted every Tuesday and Friday — but, with your support via KickStarter, it can become a daily comic strip! To learn more and to help support this project, see the KickStarter page for more details.

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Dr. Leonard Mlodinow, on Demand
Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Leonard Mlodinow

From the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking) and War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra) comes a fascinating, illuminating examination of the profound ways in which the unconscious mind shapes our lives. Every aspect of our mental lives plays out in two versions: one conscious, which we are constantly aware of, and the other unconscious, which remains hidden from us. Over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the unconscious, or subliminal, workings of the mind. This explosion of research has led to a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. As a result, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that how we experience the world—our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment—is largely driven by the mind’s subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed.

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Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art (cover)

Get the Skepticality App — the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society, so you can enjoy your science fix and engaging interviews on the go! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows 8 devices.

Colliding Worlds

This week on Skepticality, Derek chats with Arthur I. Miller, a PhD particle physicist who has spent his life fascinated with the nature of creative thinking and the intersection between creativity and science. Arthur’s latest book, Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art is a look at this world from the 1960s until today.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Dustin White reveals the inside story, detailing his personal experience faith healing, performing exorcisms, and doing psychic surgeries. White recounts the deception, lies, theatrics, motivations, and justifications involved. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 19.1 (2014).

Dustin White focused on religious studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, and is now pursuing a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies. He is also a professional magician who uses his knowledge to lecture on topics such as psychics and other con artists.

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Becoming a Faith Healer:
An Insider’s Look at the Business
of Revealed Religion

by Dustin White

In 1996, when I was just eight years old, I got involved in faith healing. My family had been attending a non-denominational church called Faith Family Church in Minot, ND. Non-denominational was really a code word for evangelical. In fact, we were a spirit-filled branch of evangelical Protestantism called Pentecostalism, which believes in the inerrancy of scripture, the acceptance of Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, and especially the belief in the baptism of the Holy Spirit that grants people the power of such spiritual gifts as speaking in tongues and divine healing. For the next decade, I was deeply involved with this movement and then became a young faith healer myself. Shortly after I left the church at the age of 18 in 2006, the church told me that they were rejecting my ordination with them, and disavowing any association with me. After I left, the church discovered that my theological ideas had changed to the point that in fact I had became an atheist. I had also become considerably more liberal in my social attitudes in that I didn’t condemn anyone who had different ideas, as one is apt to do when deeply involved in religion. Shortly thereafter, because of the decreasing number of members and dwindling resources, the minister suddenly “had a calling to a new church,” and our Faith Family Church shut its doors for good. But in that decade I learned a lot about human psychology and the power of belief.

Becoming a Faith Healer

Faith healing began for me not long after I became a member of this Pentecostal church where “healings” were almost a weekly occurrence. Being young and easily influenced, I was amazed by such feats. There was no way I could have questioned them because my church encouraged blind faith. When I eventually got the chance to become a faith healer myself, I was ecstatic.

Becoming a faith healer was like becoming a superhero. It was not just that it meant that one would have “power” over the natural world, and especially over sickness and disease, but that one was actually chosen by God. The sense of power was overwhelming, at least at first. Power over others can be intoxicating, but stronger still was the belief— the “fact” in my mind—that what I was doing was God’s work.

Initially, the act of faith healing began as a group experience. The children in the church would be brought up to the front at the end of the service so that they could lay their hands on the “sick.” These people, however, were never the severely ill. We never attempted to “heal” anyone who had a serious disorder or problem. We were told that our faith was not yet strong enough to heal the truly sick, so instead we were instructed to lay our hands on individuals who would have gotten better anyway, such as people who had a common cold, or who were grieving. Yet, we believed—as did the people we laid hands on—that it was through faith that they were “miraculously” healed.

Illustration copyright 2014 by Pat Linse

Illustration by Pat Linse

Shortly after these group healings began, the minister approached my father and step-mother. I recall my parents telling me that the minister had been impressed with me, and that he thought that the spirit was working through me especially strongly. This confused me because the things that the minister had allegedly said he witnessed (such as me prophesying) were things I did not remember doing. Being unable to recall the actual incidents that were mentioned, I was sure that what the minister described did not happen. However, who was I to disagree with him? At that age, who disagrees with adults? There was no reason I could think of why the minister would lie about something like this, so I questioned myself instead.

It was after this that the minister took me under his wing and began teaching me more about faith healing. My initial impression that this was a gift given by God soon began to erode. I was told that sometimes we had “to help God.” It was sometimes necessary to fake miracles in order to help inspire faith in others. This deception, I was told, should “not be seen as lying” because it was bringing people to the faith. It went further than this though. I was encouraged not to see using information given to me freely as being unethical. Instead, I was told to see it as the information being delivered to me by God. God supposedly worked through the process of having me purposely learn all I could about the congregants so that I could feed it back to them later. I was learning how to do the “hot” version of cold readings!

This manipulation, however, did not stop at just learning about the congregants. It was also important to know how to create an environment that lent itself to creating emotional ecstasy. An effective tool to this end was music, which we used to create the “right state of mind.” Through the use of music, we were able to create the impression that God had entered into fellowship with the congregation. Combining this with the “heartfelt” words of a charismatic minister, the potential to create an ecstatic uproar in the church was almost guaranteed. I later discovered that it was also a surefire way to get the congregants to open up their wallets.

Faith healings were only part of our job description. We also performed exorcisms on both people and their homes. They believed that many illnesses and/or disorders were caused by demonic influence, so the primary way to deal with such problems was to exorcize the demons. And believe me, these exorcisms were great performance pieces, especially when some creativity was thrown into the mix.

Seeing demons was something that I was encouraged to do from a young age. Growing up, I was taught that being able to see demons was a “gift.” For me, I was convinced that the shadows I saw at night were in fact demons. It was truly terrifying. Having an overactive imagination did not help matters when I began seeing demons everywhere, which made me terrified of the dark. At any moment I felt as if I could be attacked by these nearly invisible beings whose only intentions were to cause harm. Making mad dashes to the restroom at night became frequent occurrences—but only when I could muster the courage to do so as I was often curled up in my bed, frozen in fear.

However, once I began exorcising demons that fear evaporated. When I eventually came to the conclusion that demons were just fictional creations, that made exorcisms all the more interesting, as it turned the act of an exorcism into a theatrical piece. It became my duty to convince the participants that either they or their house were possessed by demons, and this made them commit more fully to the performance. It didn’t take much of a push, but adding some creative trickery allowed for a mediocre performance to become a great show.

There were a number of methods used to fake a demonic possession of a house. The simplest trick was having a pocket full of pebbles and occasionally throwing one at a random object. There was little chance of getting caught because there were plenty of distractions taking place, especially since everyone was kept busy praying. After we were done exorcising a room, we devised a great excuse for one of us to hang back for a while so we could clean up the pebbles. We did this under the guise of anointing the room with oil, supposedly in order to keep demons from reentering the room. The oil itself was nothing special—just regular vegetable oil with vanilla and lavender mixed in to give it a more appealing scent.

But it was also an ideal chance to do a little investigation. While the minister moved the exorcism to the next room, I had a chance to search through the room to see what could be found out. There was always a good deal of information to be gathered, from sources such as photo albums, greeting cards (especially sympathy or get well cards), as well as open mail lying on a table, desk, or computer screen. It rarely took much searching to find useful information such as illness in the family, money issues, or love problems. Such difficulties are common in every family, so it was just a matter of getting the details for each particular case, privacy be damned.

Staying behind in a house also gave me time to rig up some of the larger deceptions that we would later pull off. This often consisted of causing some havoc in a room that we had not yet exorcized of demons. Papers, books, pillows, or clothes would be scattered throughout the room. Pictures that were hanging on the wall would be either placed on the ground, or tilted off center on their hooks. If a room had a crucifix or cross we would move it outside of the room, or turn it upside down. When I did the latter, I would attach a piece of thread to the crucifix and at the climax of the exorcism I could tug on the thread and have the cross swing around to its right-side up position, thereby confirming that the demons were gone. The thread trick also worked well to create evidence of realtime demonic activity: I would attach a piece of thread to a picture frame sitting on a table or ledge, then give it a pull at a propitious moment to send it crashing to the floor. While this was a frightening ordeal for the participants it also encouraged them to pray harder—it was a sign that they were winning, that the demons were becoming frightened and that they would be expelled from the house.

Our tricks were not always harmless—often they caused physical damage. One time I used hooks in order to create the appearance of claw marks climbing up the sheet rock in a bedroom closet. It was extremely effective in creating the impression that our exorcism was real since it was done in the one room that we had not yet blessed, giving the illusion that a frightened demon had no other way out besides struggling to crawl up the walls in order to escape. Another time I used those same hooks to create the impression that a demon had shredded pillows and curtains. We justified such vandalism by believing we were giving people hope—the rationalization for many cons.

My favorite trick was faking a demonic attack. These were always directed at either myself or the minister and had the effect of strengthening the participants’ faith in us. If the demons were physically attacking us, it meant that they were afraid of us— and for good reason because we had God on our side. A common method we used was to shred a sleeve of our shirt with a razor beforehand, and then hide the damage under a coat. During an intense moment of the exorcism, the minister or I would initiate the fake attack by suddenly appearing to be pulled from behind, which was accomplished by just lunging backwards. After falling to the ground, which we orchestrated in a place that would obscure the participants’ view of us, we would simply slip off the coat, revealing our shredded shirt as evidence of the demonic attack. The effectiveness of the trick was intensified by continuing on with the exorcism as if nothing happened, as if this was just part of the expected battle with Satan we had to endure. It kept everyone from noticing the fact that there were no apparent scratches on our skin, and it extended the climax of the exorcism. Before leaving the room, however, we always made sure to put our coat back on to prevent anyone from inspecting our arms for scratch marks.

These house exorcisms also proved to be a valuable source of information that we could use during subsequent sermons. The word of mouth that spread after a house exorcism generated a phenomenal turnout for our sermons the next Sunday, and this of course drove up revenue through greater donations. We would have the individuals whose house we had exorcised come up for a public healing and/or additional exorcism. We first had to be sure that the individual believed they were possessed. This was not that hard to establish since most people who came to us asking for such an exorcism already believed that demonic forces caused their problems. However, in order to really sell an exorcism, there was some coaching and prepping we needed to do. For example, through numerous “counseling” sessions, we would reinforce the person’s belief that a demon was dwelling within them. This was done by asking them leading questions and getting them to admit that they were sinners who were unable to control their weaknesses—such as lying or drinking. It was easy to attribute such actions to a demon, and our marks were only too happy to shunt the blame to supernatural forces beyond their control. The main purpose of these sessions, though, was to let people know how they should act during the exorcism. We told each individual what they should expect from the ordeal. We suggested that demons do not want to let go of their hosts, and that this would cause the spirits to become violent. This violence would manifest itself in the form of outbursts and threats. The individual would have to be restrained, as the demon would attack the poeple casting it out of its vessel. We also informed them that the tools we would be using—such as holy water and crosses—would make the demons writhe in pain. Explaining all this helped insure that our marks would fully commit to the performance and become willing participants in it. If they truly wanted this demon to be gone, they were going to have to act like it.

This was the key to the entire faith healing, and exorcism performance: letting the participants know how they were expected to act. If they were to be healed, they better follow this ritualistic performance. It was an unspoken agreement, and was so ingrained in the congregation that it was not questioned. As an additional bonus, such acts demonstrated their faith, and if they did not act in such a manner, then it was their fault for not having faith. It was never the faith healer’s fault if the healing or exorcism failed.

It also did not matter if people said they were not ill. As with demon possession, it is very easy to convince a person that they have some sort of illness, especially if you know their family history, which we always did. If heart disease or some other health issues ran in a family, they could be made to believe they also had the same problem, even if it had not manifested itself yet. Often, such issues were attributed to some sort of negative spirit that we, of course, would have to exorcise from them. Knowing the family history also allowed us to avoid “healing” them from a disease they really had and that we knew we could not cure. For example, if I were to diagnose someone with breast cancer and they actually had it (and more importantly knew about it), there was a risk that they would believe it truly was healed and not then go in for treatment. To be responsible for someone’s death would be too much, and even though crossing ethical lines is something that I did, there was still a limit. It was also the reason that there is a refusal to “heal” someone with a terminal disease. To do so is crossing an ethical line that was far past the limit. Instead, it was much better to console the family by saying that it was in God’s plan that their loved one would pass on. This also often meant a large payout to the church.

There were additional methods we used to increase the benefits we got from the faith healing performances. The addition of a few extra details sold the performance to the entire congregation. The main one, as I mentioned before, was hot reading the audience by gathering information about individuals ahead of time. Besides snooping around while performing house exorcisms, we also gathered intel during routine house calls. There was always a time for either myself or the minister to walk off and take down a few notes while the mark was being distracted. Counseling sessions also proved to be a jackpot for obtaining information. People in distress will give away many personal and intimate details that can be fed back to them later on. Even easier were the prayer cards we passed out before each sermon, filled out ahead of time by the people in attendance. After collecting them we would have all of the information we could ever want to use during the service. We would go to the office after the offering was collected (when the prayer cards would also be handed in) and take note of a handful of easier ones, or we would simply take the prayer cards, slip them into a Bible and read from them. The Bible method was especially effective, as it guaranteed an accurate reading of each card, free from error, and at the same time gave the performance a little more authority as the Bible was being evoked.

There were also times when we would plant individuals in the audience in order to give the illusion of greater miracles. This was not a practice that was used often—it was reserved for special occasions. It allowed for great performance pieces, such as healing a person who was blind, and having them throw their glasses and cane down while naming everything they could now see. We also were able to give the appearance of individuals being able to walk again, and have them dance on stage. In some cases, to make a greater impact, we would even purposely dress these individuals up to look older than they were. Finding such stooges was very simple—money is a great motivator. We actively sought out different local actors who were struggling. If nothing else, we would pick up a homeless person off the street and give them a crash course in acting. It really did not take much, and the money we paid out was always recouped by the church in the donation sessions.

During my stint as a faith healer, I was also taught how to do psychic surgeries. These were rare and always reserved for near the end of a performance. The method was simple. We would select an individual and convince them that they had a tumor that needed to be removed, and have them lie on a table at the front of the church. A little bowl filled with fake blood and chicken gizzards was hidden on a shelf attached to the bottom of the table. Lifting up the individual’s shirt to expose their stomach, we would take a wet towel and “clean” the area where the surgery incision was supposedly going to be made. The wet towel served several purposes. Wetting the subject’s skin made the fake blood flow faster and spread more dramatically. The towel itself could be positioned on the subject’s stomach to block the audience’s view and hide material taken from the bowl. And it could be moved around under the guise of wiping up blood, allowing the hidden chicken parts to be transfered under the hand which was positioned over the supposed surgery site. Reaching under the hand that was now concealing the bloody gizzards, we would fake a struggle when extracting the pieces as if we had seized a tumor that didn’t want to come out. This would be repeated a few times, until all of the tumors were removed. All the while we would wipe around the wound which allowed us to squeeze more water into the fake blood to get it to run more. After the gizzards were removed, we would lay our hand on the “patient’s” stomach, say a prayer, and then clean them up until they were whole again.

When performing a psychic surgery, we always made sure to choose our patients carefully. They were people who, as far as we could tell, didn’t really have anything wrong with them but who could be manipulated into thinking they were sick. We convinced them that they had kidney stones, or some sort of tumor that God had revealed to us. And since we had a personal line of communication with God, who could doubt us? Often these people felt lucky that God had revealed their condition before it got to the point they were aware of it.

A final technique that we used was to give the appearance of people falling over after being touched by the spirit. There were many ways to create this effect. In some cases, we simply pushed the person over. It was quite easy, as they never saw it coming, and when they did fall backwards, they were conditioned to think that it was the spirit touching them. This was often masked by delivering an energetic prayer for the individual—and then suddenly we would push them. A more subtle means of toppling a believer was by placing a hand on their lower back, and then while praying for them (with our hands on their forehead), slowly push their head back until they lost their balance and fell backwards. Other times, the people just fell over willfully, as that was the role they were expected to play. Undoubtedly, some of these people faked it, but we did not mind as we were faking the whole ordeal as well.

Finally, in case you’re wondering about our motivation, it’s not complicated. For my minister, it was for the money. After he drained church coffers, he was gone. For me, I felt as if I was helping people. Yes, of course, I knew that I was manipulating them and in many cases flat out lying to them; however, I also knew that many people gained hope from these experiences. It gave them the sense that someone cared, and that someone was looking out for them. In turn, I believed that this brought them happiness, at least for a short while. Even though it was not God’s work, I figured it was still good work.

After the minister left, people continued coming to me. They wanted to believe that what I did was real, so I allowed it. For many, they did not know what else to do, so they approached me, hoping that maybe something could change. Others came because it gave them a sense of being part of the congregation. For others, it was a way out, an excuse—it is easier to blame a demon for one’s actions rather than admitting to one’s own faults.

After the church closed, I figured I was done with the whole ordeal. They had broken all association with me, and I had no desire to remember that time in my life. I was no longer living in Minot, so there was little chance that I would run into someone who had belonged to the church. For around seven years I put it all behind me and kept silent. Now, being 25 years old, I have begun thinking about that time of my life again. Initially, I tried to find my old minister, but nothing turned up. The church he was supposedly called to either never existed, or it also has closed its doors. So instead, I decided that I needed to come clean about the con that I had participated in. This seemed especially necessary because for the last several years I have been lecturing on the methods of psychics. It felt dishonest for me to be exposing the methods of another group of cons, when I was guilty of having been involved with similar dishonesty. This has not been easy. It meant that I had to admit exactly what I did and at the same time relive those experiences. This article is a step toward reconciliation with myself, and also with those I conned. I hope in the process that by exposing the techniques we employed it can also serve to ward off others from being so deceived. END

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