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New Facts Concerning Goddard Squadron Photo

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

Squadron photo allegedly showing the ghost of Freddy Jackson.

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

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


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eSkeptic for July 29, 2015


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

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

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

Rent this lecture for $1.95

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

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

Rent this lecture for $1.95

Mathemagics & the Future of Math
Art Benjamin

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

Rent this show for $1.95

About this week’s eSkeptic

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

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

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

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

by Michael Shermer

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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

The Apostate

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


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eSkeptic for July 22, 2015

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

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

Read the Insight


Rupert Sheldrake & Michael Shermer

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

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

Read the Dialogue

Hello Reality

With The Amazing Meeting ending only a couple days ago, Derek doesn’t wait to give you the first recorded interview from the event. Derek talks with Jim Baggott, author of many books on the nature of reality and physics. In his latest work, Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, Baggott argues that there is no observational or experimental evidence for many of the ideas of modern theoretical physics: super-symmetric particles, super strings, the multiverse, the holographic principle, or the anthropic cosmological principle. These theories are not only untrue, they are not even science. It is fairy-tale physics: fantastical, bizarre and often outrageous, perhaps even confidence-trickery.

Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available on the App Store
Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available at Amazon for Android
Skepticality (the Official Podcast App of Skeptic Magazine) is available on Windows Store


Fine-Tuning and the Multiverse

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

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

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

Read the full article

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A New Ice Age? No, Bad Journalism Run Amok

Catastrophes (book cover)

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A few weeks ago, the internet was abuzz with claims that scientists were predicting a “new Ice Age” around 2030. Many media outlets ran misleading pictures of people walking through frozen wastelands, and other wintry scenes. Naturally, the climate deniers immediately jumped on this as proof that global warming wasn’t going to happen, or that scientists can’t get their stories straight. My email and Facebook were flooded with questions from people asking me whether it was true, and what did it all mean?

This story is a classic case of bad journalism run amok. The original source was just a re-published press release of a talk not yet given by one solar scientist, Dr. Valentina Zharkova. She works on solar magnetism, but has absolutely no training in atmospheres or climate science. It is just an initial report of a new mathematical model for the magnetic field behavior of the sun. It is not a peer-reviewed study, nor is it even published yet, so it hasn’t had the slightest scientific scrutiny. Contrary to all the breathless reporting, it shows no actual data for how much solar radiation will be emerging in 2030—just that the magnetic activity of the sun would be different. Magnetic activity of the sun does not translate into a simple prediction of how much radiation reaches the earth. And nowhere in this unreviewed press release does the scientist make the actual claim that there will be a new ice age in 2030. That was entirely made up by the media which completely misinterpreted and misreported the minimal information in the study.


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Fine-Tuning and the Multiverse

Photography by Ed Pastor. Photo illustration by Pat Linse.

Photography by Ed Pastor, photo illustration by Pat Linse.

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

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

Assuming—on no basis whatsoever—that those parameters are independent and could have taken on any value over a wide range, they conclude that the probability of a universe with our particular set of parameters is infinitesimally small. Further assuming—also on no basis whatsoever—that the probability of a divine creator is not equally infinitesimally small, they conclude that a creator fine-tuned the universe for life. Note that there is also no basis whatsoever to assume that this creator was the personal God worshipped by Christians, Muslims, and Jews or the God of any other religion. An impersonal, deist creator works equally well.

Arguments from design are essentially God-of-the-gaps arguments. They can’t succeed because the proponents would have to prove that science will never find an explanation to fill the gap, which they can never do. But they keep trying. In a book published in 2011 titled The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, I showed that, based on our knowledge of this universe alone, divine fine-tuning claims are without merit.1 Of course this did not put an end to the notion, so in this essay I will bring the arguments up-to-date.

Fallacy mentioned (but did not rely on) the no-brainer solution to the fine-tuning problem that is regarded as the most plausible by most physicists and cosmologists: Our universe is just one of an unlimited number of individual, uncreated universes collectively called the multiverse that extend for an unlimited distance in all directions and for an unlimited time in the past and future. We just happen to live in the particular universe that is suited for our kind of life. Our universe is not fine-tuned for us; we are fine-tuned to our universe.

As we will see, recent observations have rendered the multiverse even more credible now than it was in 2011 when I first published the book.

The Multiverse

The eternal multiverse hypothesis was first put forward in 1983 by cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin.2 It was based on the model that had been proposed a few years earlier by physicist Alan Guth (and independently by several others), called inflation that solved a number of existing problems in cosmology.3 In the inflationary model, during the first tiny fraction of a second after our universe appeared it underwent a rapid, exponential expansion and increased in size by many orders of magnitude.

Vilenkin discovered from the mathematics of the model that once inflation starts it never ends, with new universes being created all the time. He called this eternal inflation. In 1986, Andrei Linde elaborated on the idea showing how it was possible that the universe reproduces itself indefinitely and “may have no beginning or end.”4

Eternal inflation, as conceived by Vilenkin and Linde, results in the continual production of bubble universes inside of other universes in a fractal-like structure.5 Basically, while a bubble universe is exponentially inflating to a much larger size, other bubbles can nucleate in an ever-growing empty “de Sitter” space.6

Note that the multiverse does not need to be proven to exist to invalidate the fine-tuning argument for a creator. It just needs to be a possible alternative. Nevertheless, theologians have vehemently objected to the multiverse. Virtually all world religions teach the divine creation of a single universe at a finite time in the past with a central place for humanity. The multiverse severely challenges that teaching.

Theological Objections

On July 7, 2005, Christoph Schönborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna wrote in the New York Times, “The multiverse hypothesis in cosmology [was] invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science.”7

Of course the Church also objected when early astronomers said Earth was round and later when Copernicus moved the earth from the center of the solar system. And when Giordano Bruno said that ours was just one of many planets orbiting many suns, they burned him at the stake. Theists talk about humility, but they don’t like it when science gives them a reason to be humble.

Leading Christian apologist William Lane Craig has expressed sentiments similar to Schönborn’s. In a debate at Purdue University in 2013 Craig said, “The proponents of chance have been forced to postulate the existence of a World Ensemble of other universes, preferably infinite in number and randomly ordered, so that life-permitting universes will appear by chance somewhere in the Ensemble.”8

These statements are not only wrong; they are insults to serious scholars who are committed to reason and evidence and not some ideological agenda. The “World Ensemble” or multiverse was motivated by established science—with no thought whatsoever to theology. It is the conclusion of our best current models of cosmology based on the extremely precise observations of modern astronomy and our best knowledge of fundamental physics.

A common objection to the notion of multiple universes is that it introduces additional entities when only a single entity, a lone universe, is needed. In 1986 astronomer Edward Harrison wrote: “Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes, or design that requires only one.”9

To help us decide on the best choice, we can apply the test of Ockham’s razor, which favors the simplest hypothesis when there are several to choose from. At first glance, it might seem that a single universe is more parsimonious than multiple universes. However, Ockham’s razor does not apply to the number of objects in a theory but rather to the number of hypotheses. The atomic theory of matter multiplied the number of objects physicists had to deal with by trillions of times. Yet it was simpler and more powerful than macroscopic thermodynamics, which preceded it and which can be completely derived from atomic theory.

Similarly, since current science based on observations implies multiple universes, to postulate that only a single universe exists requires an additional hypothesis not required by the data. That is, it’s the single universe hypothesis that violates Ockham’s razor.

Is the Multiverse Scientific?

In another objection, many nonbelieving scientists have joined theists in arguing that the multiverse is “non-scientific” because we have no way of observing a universe outside our own. This is wrong. The multiverse is a legitimate scientific hypothesis since it seems to be an unavoidable consequence of eternal inflation, which is based on our best observational data as well as our best theoretical knowledge.

Our theories often contain unobservables, such as quarks and black holes. Furthermore, empirical evidence for other universes is not beyond the realm of possibility. Early in the history of our universe another universe may have been sufficiently close for its gravity to affect the spherical symmetry of the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Or, the bubbles may have collided leaving a bruise on each. A detection of a large-scale asymmetry in the CMB could provide evidence for a universe outside our own. In fact, the Planck space telescope has confirmed several unexplained asymmetries of this nature that were hinted at in earlier observations by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Explorer (WMAP).10

Now, since the observation of another universe beside our own would be the greatest scientific discovery in history, don’t expect any cosmologists to make such a claim until they have ruled out every other possibility to the highest level of confidence and had their discovery independently verified. In the case of the Planck experiment, the investigating team has not deemed the evidence sufficiently significant to make any published claim. We’ll have to wait and see. But the fact that other universes are in principle observable suffices to keep them on the table of science.

In 2014, inflationary cosmology—and by inference the multiverse—received a major boost from the observation of what appear to be primordial gravitational waves. A unique type of polarization in the cosmic microwave background called “B-mode” had been predicted to arise from the gravitational waves induced by the quantum fluctuations that are posited to have produced our universe. The observation of this polarization was announced with great fanfare on March 17, 2014 by an experiment called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) located at the South Pole.11 The null hypothesis was ruled out at a statistical significance level of less than one part in 3.5 million. However, this result is currently being questioned and we have to await further developments.

Fine-Tuning in Our Universe

Despite the greatly improved status of the multiverse hypothesis since 2011, it remains unconfirmed. So it behooves us to continue to examine the credibility of the divine fine-tuning hypothesis for our single, lone universe.

In The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning I provided purely natural explanations for the values of the so-called fine-tuned parameters that appear most frequently in the theistic literature. Again, I did not have the burden of proving these explanations correct. I just needed to show that there are plausible alternatives. This approach is sufficient to invalidate the need for a supernatural creator. Those who dispute this argument have the burden of proving otherwise. This they have not done.

My theist critics continue to fail to understand that they are making the less parsimonious hypothesis—that an all-powerful supernatural being for which no evidence exists brought the universe into being.

Recently I contributed a chapter arguing against fine-tuning to an anthology called Debating Christian Theism.12 Christian philosopher Robin Collins of Messiah College presented the case for fine-tuning in an accompanying chapter.13 In it he criticizes a number of my previous arguments, to which I will briefly respond here. Referring to the possibility that the parameters can vary randomly, Collins asks, “Why should they give rise to precisely the right set of laws required for life?”14 He obviously thinks only one form of life is possible—ours. Well, that’s the whole point he and other divine fine-tuners miss. The parameters didn’t have to be precise to lead to some form of life somewhere in this vast universe. In Fallacy I showed that wide ranges of physical parameters could plausibly lead to conditions, such as long ages of stars, that could in principle allow for the evolution of life of one form or another.

Let’s look at some of the parameters that are supposed to be fine-tuned for life.

Trivial Parameters

Two of the parameters that appear in most lists of fine-tuned quantities are

  • The speed of light in a vacuum c
  • Planck’s constant h

As basic as these parameters are to physics, their values are arbitrary. The fundamental unit of time in physics is the second. The units for all other measurable quantities in physics, except for those that are dimensionless, are defined relative to the second. The value of c is chosen to define what units will be used to measure distance. To measure distance in meters you choose c = 3×108. To measure distance in light-years you choose c = 1.

The value of Planck’s constant h is chosen to define what units will be used to measure energy. To measure energy in joules you choose h = 6.626×10-34. To measure energy in electron volts you choose h = 4.136×10-15. Physicists like to work in what they call “natural units,” where ħ = h/2π = c = 1. Then the three defining properties of matter—mass, energy, and momentum—all have the same units.

Other arbitrary quantities that are often claimed to be fine-tuned include Boltzmann’s constant, kB, which simply converts from units of absolute temperature—degrees Kelvin—to energy, and Newton’s gravitational constant, G, which also depends on the choice of units. In what are called Planck units, ħ = c = G = 1.

In other words, dimensioned constants such as c, h, and G have no significance in physics because they are just arbitrary conversion factors. For a constant to be meaningful, it must be dimensionless.

Parameters Needed for Any Form of Life

Less trivially, let us look at five parameters that are claimed by theists to be so finely tuned that no form of life could exist in a universe in which any one of the values differed by an infinitesimal amount from its existing value in our universe.15 These are:

  • The ratio of electrons to protons in the universe
  • The ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity
  • The expansion rate of the universe
  • The mass density of the universe
  • The cosmological constant
The ratio of electrons to protons in the universe

Physicist and Christian apologist Hugh Ross asserts that if this ratio were larger, there would be insufficient chemical binding. If smaller, electromagnetism would dominate gravity preventing galaxy, star, and planet formation.

The fact that the ratio is exactly equal to one can be easily explained. The number of electrons in the universe should equal the number of protons from charge conservation, on the reasonable expectation that the total electric charge of the universe is zero. While other charged particles exist, the proton and electron are the only ones that are stable.

The ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity

Ross says that if this ratio were larger, there would be no stars less than 1.4 solar masses and hence short and uneven stellar burning. If it were smaller, there would be no stars more than 0.8 solar masses and hence no heavy element production.

The ratio of the forces between two particles depends on their charges and masses. Despite the statement often heard in most (if not all) physics classrooms—that gravity is much weaker than electromagnetism—there is no way one can state absolutely the relative strengths of gravity and any other force. Indeed, if one were to define the strength of gravity using the only natural mass that can be formed from fundamental constants, the Planck mass (2.18 × 10-8 kilograms), you find that gravity is 137 times stronger than electromagnetism.

The reason gravity is so weak in atoms is the small masses of elementary particles. Collins misunderstands this point when he writes: “Stenger’s attempt to explain away this apparent fine-tuning [the low mass of the proton and neutrons] is like someone saying protons and neutron are made up of quarks and gluons, and since the latter masses are small, this explains the smallness of the former masses.”16

This is a complete misrepresentation of my position. Nowhere have I used this argument. Collins provides no direct quotation or citation. In truth, I make the very reasonable assumption that all the elementary particles (the proton and neutron are not elementary) were massless when they were first generated in the early universe. All have low masses today compared to the Planck mass, since those masses were just small corrections provided by the Higgs mechanism and other effects.

The expansion rate and mass density of the universe

Ross claims that if the expansion rate of the universe, given by the cosmological Hubble parameter H, were larger there would be no galaxy formation; if smaller the universe would collapse prior to star formation.

As Stephen Hawking stated in his 1988 bestseller A Brief History of Time, inflation results in the mass density of the universe being very close to the critical value, which depends on H. This, in turn implies that H also has a critical value.17 Only one of these two parameters is adjustable. Let’s assume it is H.

Now, the age of the universe is approximately given by T = 1/H. It is currently 13.8 billion years. Life could just as well have evolved for T = 12.8 billion years or T = 14.8 billion years. In fact, suppose T = 1.38 billion years. Then we could not have life now, but it would come along ten billion years or so later. Or, suppose T = 138 billion years. Then life would have already appeared a hundred or so billion years earlier.

So, neither the density of the universe nor the expansion rate was fine-tuned. The density is just what it should be and the expansion rate could be almost anything.

The cosmological constant

The cosmological constant is equivalent to an energy density of the vacuum and is the favorite candidate for the dark energy, which is responsible for the acceleration of the universe’s expansion—constituting over 68 percent of the total mass/energy of the universe.

The original calculations of the energy density of the vacuum gave answers that are 50–120 orders of magnitudes larger than the maximum value allowed by observations. So fine-tuning of up to one part in 120 orders of magnitude is claimed by fine-tuners. “How could anyone do this but God?,” they ask.

The original energy density calculations made a fundamental error by summing all the states in a given volume. The entropy of a system is given by the number of accessible states of the system. Thus, the entropy calculated by summing over a volume will be greater than the entropy of a black hole of the same size, which depends on its area rather than its volume. Since we cannot see inside a black hole, the information that we have about what is inside is as small as it can be and so the entropy, which is negative information, is as large as it can be.

Therefore, it was a mistake to calculate the number of states by summing over the volume. Correcting this by summing over the area, or, equivalently, setting the number of states equal to the entropy of a black hole of the same volume, we can naturally constrain the vacuum energy density. This calculation yields the result that an empty universe will have a vacuum energy density about equal to the critical density—just the value it appears to have.

For technical reasons, cosmologists are not ready to accept this solution to the cosmological constant problem. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to conclude that the original calculation is simply wrong—as far wrong as any other calculation in the history of physics—and should be ignored. Apologists have no right to take an obviously wrong calculation of a parameter and then claim that since the parameter does not have that value, it must have been set by God.

This takes care of the five parameters that are supposedly fine-tuned to such precision that even a tiny deviation would make life of any kind impossible. None are fine-tuned. Next let us move to another parameter that theists claim had to be fine-tuned for life based on carbon chemistry.

The Hoyle Prediction

In 1951, astronomer Fred Hoyle predicted that the carbon nucleus would need an excited state at about 7.7 MeV (million electron-volts) above its ground state in order for enough carbon to be produced in stars to make life in the universe possible. This story is of great historical interest because it is the only case where anthropic reasoning has led to an empirically verified prediction. Shortly thereafter the excited state was found at 7.656 MeV.18

However, calculations since have demonstrated that the same amount of carbon would have been produced if the excited state were any place between 7.596 MeV and 7.716 MeV. Furthermore, sufficient carbon for life would have occurred for an excited state anywhere from just above the ground state to 7.933 MeV.19 A state somewhere in such a large range is expected from standard nuclear theory. Furthermore, carbon is not the only element upon which life might be based.

Other Physics Parameters

Some of the other parameters that are claimed to be fine-tuned for life are:

  1. The relative masses of elementary particles.
  2. The relative strengths of the forces and other physics parameters.
  3. The decay rate of protons.
  4. The baryon excess in the early universe.

In Fallacy I showed that all have a wide range of possible values that allows some kind of life to form.

Cosmic Parameters

We have already disposed of the cosmic parameters that were deemed so crucial in making any livable universe possible: the mass density of the universe, the expansion rate, and the ratio of the number of protons and electrons are not only not fine-tuned, they are fixed by conventional physics and cosmology or, in the case of the expansion rate, practically any value would allow for life. Here are two other cosmic parameters that are said to be fine-tuned:

  1. The deuterium abundance.
  2. The lumpiness of matter.

Cosmologists now have a model referred to as ΛCDM (Lambda Cold Dark Matter) that gives a precise fit to the anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background and is consistent with observations on galactic structure. That model contains only six adjustable parameters. Neither the deuterium abundance nor the lumpiness of matter is one of these parameters. They come out of the model. The density of matter is not a parameter but assumed to equal the critical value. The expansion rate (Hubble parameter) is not an adjustable parameter but calculated in the model. In this model the cosmological constant is assumed to be the source of dark energy and its energy density is one of the six adjustable parameters.

In short, the divine fine-tuners have to go back to the drawing board and run the ΛCDM model over a range of the six adjustable parameters and show that life of any form would be impossible unless the parameters were exactly what they are for our universe.

Simulating Universes

The aggregate properties of the universe as we know them today are determined by just three physics parameters: the electromagnetic strength and the respective masses of the proton and the electron.20 From these we can estimate quantities such as the maximum lifetime of stars, the minimum and maximum masses of planets, the minimum length of a planetary day, and the maximum length of a year for a habitable planet. Generating 10,000 universes in which the parameters are varied randomly on a logarithmic scale over a range of 10 orders of magnitude, I find that 61 percent of the universes have stellar lifetimes over 10 billion years, sufficient for some kind of life to evolve.

Collins has previously objected to my preliminary and now 20-year old conclusion that long stellar lifetimes are not fine-tuned.21 He argues that not all these universes are livable—that I have not accounted for life-inhibiting features. He refers to John Barrow and Frank Tipler, who in their classic The Anthropic Cosmological Principle set a certain technical requirement for life to be possible.22 I have checked and found the Barrow-Tipler limit to be satisfied 91 percent of the time.

Applying rather tight limitations to all three parameters in order to produce life, 13 percent of all universes are capable of supporting some kind of life not too different from ours when I vary them by ten orders of magnitude. Varying by two orders of magnitude, which is more realistic since the parameters are not independent but related, I find that 92 percent of the universes have stellar lifetimes over 10 billion years and 37 percent are capable of supporting some kind of life not too different from ours. Life very different from ours remains possible in a large fraction of the remaining universes, judging from the large stellar lifetimes for most.

Summary of the Case Against Fine-Tuning

The following is a summary of the logical and scientific errors made by proponents of fine-tuning (not all make every error) that I have identified in my study of this subject.

  1. They claim fine-tuning for our form of life, ignoring the possibility of other life forms.
  2. They claim fine-tuning for physics constants such as c, h, and G, whose values are arbitrary.
  3. They claim fine-tuning for quantities such as the ratio of electrons to protons, the expansion rate of the universe, and the mass density of the universe, whose values are precisely set by cosmological physics or have wide allowable ranges. These are not even varied in the current standard cosmological model.
  4. They assert that the relative strength of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces is fine-tuned, when in fact this quantity cannot be universally defined.
  5. They assert that an excited state of the carbon nucleus had to be fine-tuned for stars to produce the carbon needed for life, when calculations show that a wide range of values for the energy level of that state will produce sufficient carbon.
  6. They claim fine-tuning for the masses of elementary particles when the ranges of these masses are set by well-established physics and sufficiently constrained to give some form of life.
  7. They assume the strengths of the various forces are constants that can independently change from universe to universe. In fact, they are dependent on one another and vary with energy, and their relative values and energy dependences are close to being pinned down by theory, in ranges that make some kind of life possible.
  8. Most make a serious analytical mistake in taking all the parameters in the universe to be fixed while varying only one at a time. This fails to account for the fact that a change in one parameter can be compensated by a change on another, opening up more parameter space for a viable universe.
  9. They misunderstand or misuse probability theory, ignoring the fact that events with “mindboggling” low probabilities occur billions of times a day. The only way one can use a low probability to argue that something is unlikely is to compare it with the probabilities of all the alternatives. What is the probability of God? In Fallacy I compared the calculations for the probability of God using sophisticated Bayesian statistics made by two physicists, one a believer and one a nonbeliever. The believer came up with 0.67, while the nonbeliever’s result was 10-17.23
  10. They claim many parameters of Earth and the solar system are fine-tuned for life, failing to consider that with an estimated sextillion planets in the visible universe in habitable regions of their stars, and the countless number beyond our horizon where light has not yet had time to reach us, a planet with the properties needed for life is likely to occur many times. Nevertheless, the universe is hardly lifefriendly. If God wanted to fine-tune it for life he could have made the universe a lot friendlier.
  11. The fine-tuners are also wrong to reject the multiverse solution as “unscientific.” It is not unscientific to speculate about invisible, unconfirmed phenomena that are predicted by existing models that, so far, agree with all the available data. The neutrino was predicted to exist in 1930 based on the well-established principle of energy conservation but was not detected until 1956, and even then indirectly.
  12. The current, highly successful ΛCDM cosmological model has only six parameters, none of which have been shown to be fine-tuned.
Skeptic magazine 19.3 (cover)

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.3 (2014). Order this back issue.

As my discussion illustrates, the explanations for apparent fine-tuning are technical and require adequate training to understand. A proper analysis finds there is no evidence that the universe is finetuned for life; all we have is yet another God-of-the-gaps argument that is doomed to failure by its implicit assumption that some phenomena exist that science will never be able to explain without introducing God into the explanation. END

  1. Stenger, Victor J. 2011. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  2. Vilenkin, Alexander. 1983. “Birth of Inflationary Universes,” Physical Review D 27, no. 12: 2848–55. See also: Vilenkin, Alexander. 2006. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. New York: Hill and Wang.
  3. Guth, Alan H. and Paul J. Steinhardt. 1984. “The Inflationary Universe.” Scientific American, 250, 116–28.
  4. Linde, Andrei. 1986. “Eternally Existing Self-Reproducing Chaotic Inflationary Universe.” Physics Letters B 175, no. 4: 395–400.
  5. Linde, Andrei. 1994. “The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe.” Scientific American, 271, no. 5: 48–55.
  6. Carroll, Sean M. 2010. From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton, 310–11.
  7. Christoph Schönborn, “Finding Design in Nature,” New York Times, July 7, 2005.
  8. Craig, William Lane. 2014. “Opening Speech.” In Is Faith in God Reasonable?, edited by Paul Gould and Corey Miller. New York: Routledge.
  9. Harrison, Edward Robert. 1985. Masks of the Universe. New York: Macmillan, 252.
  10. Planck Collaboration, Ade, P.A. R., et al. 2013. “Planck 2013 Results. XXIII. Isotropy and Statistics of the CMB.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1303.5083.
  11. P.A.R. Ade et al., “Detection of BMode Polarization At Degree Angular Scales By Bicep2,” Physical Review Letters 112, no. 24 (2014): 241101.
  12. Stenger, Victor J. 2013. “The Universe Shows No Evidence for Design.” In Debating Christian Theism, edited by J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis. New York: Oxford University Press, 47–58.
  13. Collins, Robin. 2013. “The Fine- Tuning Evidence is Convincing, “ In Debating Christian Theism, edited by J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis. New York: Oxford University Press, 35–46.
  14. Collins, 2013, 38.
  15. Ross, Hugh. 1998. “Big Bang Model Refined By Fire.” In Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design, edited by William A. Dembski, 363–83. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press; Rich Deem. Evidence for the Fine Tuning of the Universe. (accessed July 12, 2013).
  16. Collins, Robin 2009. “The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and James Porter Moreland. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 43.
  17. Hawking, Stephen. 1988. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam Books, 128.
  18. Hoyle, F., et al. 1953. “A State in C12 Predicted From Astronomical Evidence,” Physical Review Letters 92: 1095.
  19. Livio, M., D. Hollowell, A. Weiss, and J.W. Truran. 1989. “The Anthropic Significance of the Existence of an Excited State of C12,” Nature 340: 281–84, 168–73; see also figure 9.1, in Stenger, 2011, 170.
  20. Stenger, 2011, 233–44.
  21. Collins, 2009.
  22. Barrow, John D. and Frank Tipler. 1988. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford University Press, 326.
  23. Stenger, 2011, 247–52.
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eSkeptic for July 15, 2015

Barbara Drescher
Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III

Barbara Drescher wraps up her 3-part series on the difference between rationality and intelligence. It is recommended that you first read part 1 “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and part 2 “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational.

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Donald Prothero
Science Affirmers

Donald Prothero describes encouraging science-based developments on the California political stage.

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The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times (book cover)

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MonsterTalk # 100

In the 100th episode of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters, DNA researcher and author Bryan Sykes discusses the research behind his landmark book The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times; plus, thoughts and reflections on 100 episodes of MonsterTalk, including hearing from many listeners about their own favorite monsters…

Top 10 Most Popular Episodes of MonsterTalk

Click a title below to read detailed episode notes and listen to the 10 most popular episodes of MonsterTalk, starting with our most popular episode on ancient alien astronauts:

Ancient Alien Astronauts
Dr. Ken Feder, author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, on ancient alien astronauts
Cthulhu Rises
Robert M. Price on the life of H.P. Lovecraft, the history of the Cthulhu Mythos, religious beliefs and racism; plus PZ Myers on the biology and physiology of cephalopods
Bigfoot DNA
Dr. Todd Disotell on his various appearances on cryptozoology television shows as the DNA expert
The Columbus Poltergeist (featuring James Randi)
James “The Amazing” Randi on the story of Tina Resch and the paranormal phenomena known as a poltergeist
Squatching with The Krampus
Scott Herriott, host of The Bigfoot Show, on his personal quest to find Bigfoot—and the people he’s met in that search
Sasquatch: Ketchum If You Can
Dr. Todd Disotell on Melba Ketchum’s Sasquatch DNA research
The Warren Omission
Joe Nickell and Steven Novella on the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren and demonic forces in Rhode Island
Speak of the Devil
Robert M. Price on the biggest and most well known villain in Western culture: Satan
Monsters in America
Dr. Scott Poole on the history of monsters from colonial America to modern times
Fangs That Go Bump in the Night
Richard Sugg on his fascinating research into historic vampire cases

Jamy Ian Swiss in a photoshoot, at the home of Michael Shermer, after the 2015 Skeptics Society Conference, “In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity.” If you missed the conference, be sure to check out our post-conference report.

About this week’s eSkeptic

The human tendency to organize information even where no useful information exists appears to be hardwired into our brains. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present on article from the archives of Skeptic magazine issue 5.1, from 1997 wherein professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss discusses critical thinking as a way of protecting ourselves from the threat of deception.

Jamy Ian Swiss professional magician, a co-founder of the National Capital Area Skeptics; a co-founder of the New York City Skeptics; has spoken and performed across the U.S. on behalf of the Center For Inquiry; has been a contributor to Skeptic magazine; is a co-producer and on-stage host of the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism; has presented or performed annually at James Randi’s “The Amazing Meeting” since its inception in 2003; and is a past Senior Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation for which he has served as a blogger, creator of the Honest Liar video commentaries, and continues to help administer the foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge.

The Limits of Critical Thinking

by Jamy Ian Swiss

The recent self-inflicted deaths of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult raises challenging questions for skeptics. We are tempted to point in horror and issue our own doomsday admonitions: “Warning! Danger! These are the hazards of belief in UFOs and other goofy stuff! Beware! Lack of critical thinking skills equals madness equals death!” If only these particular victims had read Randi’s Flim-Flam!, they might be living, productive members of society today.

Or maybe not.

My experience with deception has proven to me that the human brain is evolutionarily programmed to be readily manipulated, whether by the likes of itinerant conjurors like myself and James Randi or by virulent megalomaniacs like Marshall Herff Applewhite. The human tendency to organize information even where no useful information exists appears to be hardwired into our brains. It was there for the first aboriginal rain dance, and it’s here today for the most contemporary forms of magical thinking. That tendency to organize, to look ahead and be creative and surmise from thin evidence is a distinctly human trait, as responsible for the greatness of the human condition as it is for its follies and failings. Our human “big brain” is an accident of evolution that may well be our salvation or undoing as a species, with its abilities to invent, create, explore and imagine, or to become addicted, depressed, or believe incredibly dangerous ideas in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

When we see the apparently placid willingness of the Higher Source cult members to fulfill their grisly task of self-destruction, it is difficult to view them as victims. Considering the patently ludicrous ideas the cult based its belief system on, it’s tempting to write the followers off as cranks who were victims only of their own willful stupidity. But the phenomenon of cultism is characterized by distinctly manipulative practices of recruitment and maintenance that must be considered independently of the particular belief system they happen to be promoting. Toxicly effective cult leaders like Herff Applewhite will always produce followers who swear to their willing allegiance and free choice just as the observer of a magic trick will swear he never looked away the whole time the magician’s spoon was magically bending. Both victims are certain they had all the information necessary to make a capable judgment.

The issue of psychological manipulation is a graduated continuum, from the person fooled by the spoon-bender to the cult victim controlled to the point of suicide. But if the cult member is a victim of a psychological predator, what about those in the free marketplace of ideas who elect to repudiate conventional medicine and sign on with a homeopathic practitioner? The wiring flaws of the human brain notwithstanding, isn’t the homeopathy user a victim of willful ignorance?

Such individuals have to be given full responsibility for their lives to muck about with as they wish. We are overwhelmed by such examples of “epistemological hedonism,” i.e., if it feels good, believe it. Education doesn’t protect those who believe irrespective of facts and information. Those who become hostile and defensive the moment we question, for example, the concept of astrology do so because such questions challenge their entire view of world and self, not simply—as skeptics are inclined to consider it—the specific facts concerning a narrow subject matter, easily disproved. As skeptical educators we must do more than simply provide cautionary signposts detailing a shopping list of road hazards labeled astrology, ufology, and a host of other pseudologies. We recognize that we must encourage broad-based thinking skills to help inoculate people against malicious crackpottery. That training must begin early in life, because it is the rare adult who comes to recognize the logical flaws in their own longstanding belief system. Our task is to teach the young—along with anyone else who will listen—to think for themselves, so that they can use these skills throughout their lives. Rational inquiry isn’t merely an academic exercise or a chore that protects us from danger. Critical thinking enhances individual responsibility by liberating us to assess risk and embrace informed choice and thereby more fully savor the human experience. Unfortunately, thinking will never be foolproof protection against the threats of deception; fools can be very determined, as can the inclination to be fooled. Thinking is merely our best chance. END

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Science Affirmers

In this blog and in my book Reality Check, I’ve frequently complained about science-denying politicians pushing policies which are in direct conflict with scientific evidence and reality: the creationist agenda in public schools, distorting history to serve the religious extremists, or acting on behalf of their energy industry donors to deny the reality of climate change and attack the EPA, NASA, NOAA, the NSF, and legitimate scientific organizations. So it gives me great pleasure to praise public figures who stand up for science and science-based policy, and pass laws that benefit people and the environment, rather than powerful special interests and the science deniers of every stripe. Nowhere is this more apparent than my home state, California.

Immunizing Children

Last week, the state legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a no-nonsense measure that made childhood vaccinations mandatory except for extraordinary medical circumstances. No more will the anti-vaxxers in my state be able to use their “personal beliefs” to endanger other children through their own foolishness and believing debunked garbage from the internet. The problem was a severe one in our state, with its huge population and large number of anti-vaxxers driven by Hollywood celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. The medical community has been battling the anti-vaxxers for years with limited success, until serious outbreaks of measles at Disneyland, and other deadly outbreaks of rubella and whooping cough started killing people. But State Senator Richard Pan, M.D., who sponsored the bill, managed to get it through both houses of the Legislature by big majorities (despite a handful of GOP naysayers who thought in impinged on “personal freedom and privacy”). Then Gov. Brown signed it as soon as it reached his desk, and the bill is now law.


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Why Smart Doesn’t Guarantee Rational, Part III

This is the third post in a three-part series. Read the previous two installments, “Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational” and “More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational.”

This post is the third and final in a series I began more than a year ago. The first post discussed how rationality differs from intelligence, how both may be measured, and what may keep intelligent people from behaving rationally. The second describes three of the four broad categories of factors involved in rational thinking while taking a closer look at how one thinking disposition, the need for cognition, affects decision-making and problem solving. I highly recommend reading the first two posts before continuing with this one as the background is important.

In summary, we tend to the think that people are irrational because they lack intelligence or knowledge. Both may contribute to rationality. However, intelligence and education are no guarantees of rationality because other factors such as cognitive laziness and open/closed-mindedness are just as, if not more, important. In other words, human beings tend to be irrational out of stupidity or ignorance, but also out of laziness or arrogance.

The scientific process addresses each of these factors to ensure that the answers we find are as accurate as possible. Although the scientific method itself is inherently intelligent, a good researcher must have a minimum level of intelligence in order to succeed as good research rises above bad through the process of peer review. Scientists conduct very thorough reviews of literature to produce theoretically sound hypotheses (addressing ignorance). Regarding cognitive laziness, science itself is curious; scientists would not be in the business if they were not intellectually curious and willing to do the work to find accurate answers. Finally, science is competitive and interactive, discouraging arrogance. An individual scientist may be overconfident, but the process of peer review and replication beats that arrogance down in order to produce a consensus view.


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eSkeptic for July 8, 2015


With 39 lectures to choose from currently, our Summer Sale subscription rate of $39 on Vimeo On Demand means you only pay $1 per lecture, and you’ll have a full year to watch them all! Or, pay only $1.95 per lecture, and choose only the ones you want to see, when you want to see them!

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Mike McRae
A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 3): The Twilight of Vitalism

Mike McRae provides a glimpse into the history of two competing systems of biology: life as complex chemistry, and the abandoned theory of vitalism. (Part 3 of 3) This post concludes a three-part series exploring the history of vitalism. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

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Outrageous—Why cops kill

The ongoing rash of police using deadly force against minority citizens has triggered a search for a universal cause—most commonly identified as racism. What in the brains of cops or citizens leads either group to erupt in violence? An answer may be found deep inside the brain, where a neural network stitches together three structures into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the rage circuit. Read about it in Michael Shermer’s July ‘Skeptic’ column from Scientific American.

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Off to The Amazing Meeting!

This week on Skepticality, Derek talks a little about his upcoming trip to The Amazing Meeting, and runs some news and updates from the band of Skepticality Contributors.

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The Way of the Mister (Quickey): Redefined

Mr. Deity responds to the redefinition of the terms “marriage” and “religious liberty.”


In a 1725 copper etching, huntsmen approach a moose felled by epilepsy. (A Compleat History of Druggs originally written in French by Monsieur Pomet, translated and expanded by Mess. Lemery and Tournefort. London, 1725. Printed with permission of the Huntington Museum, Pasadena, CA.) Click image (above) to enlarge it.

About this week’s eSkeptic

Have you ever gone cow tipping, or do you know someone who says they have? Where in the world did this strange idea come from? In this week’s eSkeptic, Pat Linse examines the surprising origins of cow tipping. This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine 20.1 (2015).

Pat Linse is an award winning illustrator who specialized in film industry art before becoming one of the founders of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and the creator of Junior Skeptic magazine. As Skeptic magazine’s Art Director, she has created many illustrations for both Skeptic and Junior Skeptic. She is co-editor of the The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience.

The Legend of the Falling Beast
Cow Tipping’s Surprising Origins

by Pat Linse

Istarted to hear the story as soon as I moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s: “Have you ever gone cow tipping?” the twenty-something guy would brag. “It’s hilarious! You drive out into the country late at night and find a bunch of sleeping cows—they sleep standing up with their legs locked, you know—and wham!—you shove them over before they know what’s happened. Boy, are they surprised!”

Skeptic magazine 20.1 (cover)

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine 20.1 (2015).

Of course cow tipping is an urban legend as explained in the article above, from from Junior Skeptic # 5, bound within Skeptic magazine issue 7.2 (pages 100–101). Cows don’t sleep standing up, their legs do not lock, and they are generally too big for a puny human to topple. They don’t even sleep at night, resting instead in five minute naps thoughout the 24-hour day.

One of the oddest parts of the cow tipping story is the claim that a cow sleeps standing up “on locked legs” that are so ridged and unbending that it can be easily pushed over. Where in the world did this strange idea come from? It turns out that the story comes from Europe and it’s been around for at least 2000 years. The famous Roman general Julius Caesar recorded this fantastic account of how to hunt easy-to-tip animals that lived in the dense forests that covered what is now southern Germany:

There are also (animals) which are called elks [The animal known as a moose in America is called an elk in Europe]. The shape of these, and the varied color of their skins, is much like roes [deer], but in size they surpass them a little and are destitute of horns, and have legs without joints and ligatures; nor do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise or lift themselves up. Trees serve as beds to them; they lean themselves against them, and thus reclining only slightly, they take their rest; when the huntsmen have discovered from the footsteps of these animals whither they are accustomed to betake themselves, they either undermine all the trees at the roots, or cut into them so far that the upper part of the trees may appear to be left standing. When they have leant upon them, according to their habit, they knock down by their weight the unsupported trees, and fall down themselves along with them. Ceasar’s Gallic Wars—Book 6, Chapter 27 [6.27] about 58–51 BCE

This same hunting tall tale was also told in ancient times about the elephant and the asian tapir. About 100 years after Caesar another Roman, Pliny the Elder, wrote about an animal with a long nose he called an “achlis,” that seemed to have both moose and elephant traits:

The North, too, produces herds of wild horses, as Africa and Asia do of wild asses. There is also the achlis, which is produced in the island of Scandinavia; it is not unlike the elk, but has no joints in the hind leg. Hence, it never lies down, but reclines against a tree while it sleeps; it can only be taken by previously cutting into the tree, and thus laying a trap for it, as otherwise, it would escape through its swiftness. Its upper lip is so extremely large, for which reason it is obliged to go backwards when grazing; otherwise, by moving onwards, the lip would get doubled up. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, 77 CE.

The story that an elk could be easily captured because it couldn’t get back up after it fell to the ground was passed down through the centuries as part of medical folklore. Books listing medical herbs and magical cures declared that elk suffered from “the falling disease” which we know today as epilepsy. Legend had it that an elk could cure its own epilepsy by striking itself with its hoof, so it was thought that taking powered elk’s hoof as a medicine, or wearing a ring carved from elk’s hoof on your finger, or even wearing a gold pendant set with a scrap of hoof would ward off the disease.

The story that European elk were susceptible to fits of falling made it across the Atlantic to the Americas. As late as the mid-1800s the famous author and medical doctor Oliver Wendal Holmes complained that some superstitious American physicians still prescribed elk’s hoof (or even horse’s hooves) for epilepsy. Did the old falling elk legend inspire the modern cow tipping story? Both are a bragging tale where a large animal is captured at night because of its unusual sleeping habits, but that in itself might not be enough to say the stories are related.

But both stories depend on the same ridiculous idea—that the animals suffer from a weakness that makes them easy prey—that they are easily toppled because of their stiff, unbending legs. Simple observation should have quickly killed this belief off. Just by spending a few minutes watching elk, moose, or cattle, anyone can see that they bend their legs, lay down to rest or sleep, and that they can easily get up again. Did the same mistaken belief—easily corrected by observation— arise twice, and was it twice perserved by being applied to two identical hunting tall tales? More likely the older story influenced the newer one in which urban tale tellers replaced the elk or moose with a more familiar animal. END

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Cow Tipping:
The Most Urban of all Urban Legends

The following article, written for children, is from Junior Skeptic # 5 on Urban Legends, published in Skeptic magazine issue 7.2 (1999). Click image below to enlarge it.

We call this the most urban (city-like) of all Urban Legends because it’s a story believed by city folk, although farm people have been known to tell it as a tall tale. Anyone who has ever worked closely with cows knows that almost every statement in the cow tipping story is false (as we will explain below). But you will probably find that you don’t have to ask very many people to find someone who absolutely swears they tipped cows over exactly the way it’s described in the cartoon above.

Why People Who Know About Cows Think That the Cow Tipping Story is Largely an Urban Legend

Cartoon panel 1 (top of this article): There is no such thing as a cow “locking its legs.” They don’t have to because cows sleep lying down (people may be confusing them with horses which do sleep standing up).

Cartoon panel 2: Cows don’t sleep for hours at a time like people do. The sleeping habits of cattle developed when they were prey animals hunted by predators. Most of their “sleeping” is very light—more what we would consider a very relaxed state. This kind of sleep is easily interrupted and allows them to be aware of their surroundings. Cows also need about an hour of a deeper kind of sleep which they take in short naps of a few minutes each spread over a 24 hour period. Because each individual cow spends so little time in deep sleep most cows in a herd are alert even at night. It’s not that easy to sneak up on a herd of cows. Domesticated cows are relatively calm animals but they are spooked by unexpected events. Cows still have the characteristics that kept them alive when they were wild animals avoiding predators. They have eyes on the side of their heads so they can see in all directions and ears as big as feet for purposes of detecting possible attackers. One alerted animal easily transfers its concern to the others in the herd. If you live in a town you may not realize how incredibly quiet it can be out in the country at night. You can hear a lone car coming for several minutes, the noise of the engine slowly increasing as it approaches. A carload of excited teens who stop along side a pasture at night, suddenly switch off the engine, scramble out, slam the car doors, and try to figure out how to squeeze through a tightly strung barbed wire fence in the dark would be hard for a cow to miss.

Cartoon panel 3: Cows are much bigger than most people realize. In the unlikely event that a cow would stand still as you approached, is it even possible to simply shove one over? Did you ever try, as a kid, to run at an older teen or adult in order to slam into them and knock them down? If you have, you know that it’s really difficult to knock someone off their feet if they weigh even 50 pounds more than you do. The black and white spotted Holstein—by far the most common dairy cow—could easily weigh more than 10 times what a potential cow tipper weighs. The cows can weigh 1500 to 1800 pounds, and the bulls can weigh over a ton! Cows are also used to responding to pushes and shoves from the rest of the animals in the herd. The top of a Holstein’s back can be five feet or more high. Plus a cow has the advantage of standing on four feet instead of two feet. Junior Skeptic scientist Tom McDonough estimates the force necessary to tip a cow (below).

Dr. Tom Mcdonough’s Science of Bovodynamics

Cows are big!

The modern Holstein dairy cow is an enormous animal. Many people who claim that they’ve pushed a cow like this over have probably never been near one because they typically describe the cow’s back as being only 3½ to 4 feet high.

(Bovodynamics, or BVD for short, is our name for the silly Science of Cow Tipping. The name combines “bovine,” an old word for cow from Latin, with “dynamics” the study of energy or objects in motion.) In the cow tipping story the cow must be tipped with a single shove before it can react to the tipper. Dr. McDonough has developed a simple computer program to estimate the amount of force it takes to shove over an object based on its weight, center of gravity and the height of its legs. If you’d like to know what tipping a cow would be like, try tipping over a refrigerator with a single shove. McDonough calculates that it would take a shove of 35 pounds of force to tip a typical home refrigerator. But a cow like the one above weighs about 8 times as much as a refrigerator! You’d first need to pack the refrigerator with 900 pounds of lead weights to duplicate the cow tipping effect. (The higher you place the weight the less you’ll need. Top-heavy items tip easier because gravity helps pull them over as the weight shifts to one side.)

Can a Person Really Tip a Cow, and Why Don’t We Just Go Out and Try It?

Cow on a ball

The direct approach is usually the best way to find something out. But we would never recommend trying to tip a live animal because from what we already know it’s likely that either the cow or the would-be tipper might be injured.

  • Bulls are often pastured with cows and they are genuinely dangerous.
  • A cow tipper could get lucky and catch a cow off balance, or cause it to trip or slip. Large animals are easily injured by their own weight just falling from a standing height.
  • You wouldn’t want to be trapped in the dark on foot if your actions caused the herd to begin running. Stampeding cattle are unpredictable.

The Psychology of Cow Tipping

The cow tipping story’s attraction is probably due to the fact that it allows a bunch of friends to pile into a car, drive around at night, have an adventure, and brag about it afterward. It may be that sending someone out to try to tip over a cow is like another joke also played on an unsuspecting greenhorn at night— “snipe hunting.” A person new to a group is invited to go snipe hunting. They are taken out into the country at night, told to wait in a particular spot for the snipes, and abandoned. The joke is to see how long a person will wait before realizing they’ve been had. The next time an unsuspecting new victim joins the group it would not be surprising to find that the previous victim is the person who suggests a snipe hunt and describes the adventure with the most enthusiasm. END

We thank dairyman Carl Knudtson and his family for providing the cow measurements for the calculations in this article.

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