• SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity
  • SKEPTIC CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015, On the Future of Science and Humanity

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eSkeptic for March 25, 2015


LETURE THIS SUNDAY AT CALTECH:
DR. SUSAN PINKER

THE VILLAGE EFFECT: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter

Sun., Mar. 29, 2015 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall, Caltech

Dr. Susan Pinker (photo by Susie Lowe)

Credit: Susie Lowe

IN THIS ENTERTAINING AND PERSUASIVE LECTURE based on her new book, psychologist Susan Pinker shows how face-to-face contact is crucial for learning, happiness, resilience, and longevity. From birth to death, human beings are hardwired to connect to other human beings. Face-to-face contact matters: tight bonds of friendship and love heal us, help children learn, extend our lives, and make us happy. Looser in-person bonds matter, too, combining with our close relationships to form a personal “village” around us. Not just any social networks will do: we need the real, in-the-flesh encounters that tie human families, groups of friends, and communities together. Marrying the findings of the new field of social neuroscience with gripping human stories, Susan Pinker explores the impact of face-to-face contact from cradle to grave, from city to Sardinian mountain village, from classroom to workplace, from love to marriage to divorce. Creating our own “village effect” makes us happier. It can also save our lives.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter , available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order The Village Effect online.

TICKETS are available 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.

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Donald Prothero
Annus Mirabilis

Donald Prothero celebrates a century of the geological revolution of Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift.

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Mike McRae
A Token Thought for the Ancient
Seeds of Science

Mike McRae describes how the development of Ionian coinage may have provided a metaphorical scaffold for considering an economics of nature—a rules-based system, upon which science is built.

Read the Insight

Daniel Loxton
The Masked Debunkery of
Captain Disillusion!

Daniel Loxton shares the most recent viral video debunking from skeptical YouTuber "Captain Disillusion."

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james Krupa
Defending Darwin
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 250

This episode marks the 250th episode of Skepticality. The 10th Anniversary of the show is coming up very soon! Derek announces where you can see the 10th anniversary episode, in person, when it is recorded. Later, he joins evolutionary biology professor Jim Krupa to discuss his latest article which was recently published in Orion magazine. Find out more about this award winning science professor and defender of evolution.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Kevin Mccaffree and Anondah Saide present a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed empirical studies that evaluate the success of teaching critical thinking strategies in the classroom. In addition, they discuss some reasons for the limited impact of these strategies.

Dr. Kevin McCaffree is a sociologist of religion and morality. He teaches social psychology and research methods at Chapman University. His current research is on ideological differences among religious non-affiliates.

Anondah Saide is a graduate student in the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside. She works in the Childhood Cognition Lab at UCR and conducts research under the umbrella of the Cognitive Science of Religion.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.4: Diet Myths. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

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Why is Critical Thinking
so Hard to Teach?

by Kevin Mccaffree & Anondah Saide

Critical thinking has long been recognized as the vehicle by which individuals make informed decisions. Yet, shockingly little understanding exists of how critical thinking strategies are best diffused to the public. In the U.S. there are several regional grassroots organizations such as the Center for Applied Rationality that exist to encourage the development of critical thinking skills. Strategies are numerous and varied, ranging from straightforward group discussions of cognitive biases to thought experiments designed to improve objectivity and to develop the ability to see things from another’s perspective. In addition to such organizations that target individuals, groups and corporations, many colleges and universities offer classes that teach critical thinking strategies.

The Skeptics Society’s own Skeptical Studies Curriculum Resource Center, informally known as Skepticism 101, provides hundreds of resources from professors across the country actively teaching their own critical thinking courses. The skeptical and secular community feel the high percentage of the general public who believe pseudoscientific claims is worrisome, and education is seen as the means by which believers can be reasoned out of their misconceptions. Indeed, with survey data showing that between 67 and 73 percent of adults in the U.S. subscribe to at least one paranormal belief1, 2 this topic needs empirical clarification.

Education and Paranormal Belief

Unfortunately, the empirical relation between educational attainment in general, and belief in the paranormal (e.g., in ghosts, astrology, telepathy) is a murky one. The results of research on whether education (as measured by number of years of formal education received) decreases belief have been mixed. Sociologist Erich Goode3 has shown that educational attainment doesn’t necessarily reduce belief in supra-empirical ideas, but rather it appears to moderate it. Educated people tend to simply believe different (demonstrably false) things than less educated people. For example, in a study by Tom Rice, college educated individuals were more likely to believe in psychic healing and déjà vu, while those with only a high school education were more likely to believe in traditional religion and astrology.4 The Baylor Religion Survey found that individuals with less than a high school diploma were more likely to have consulted a psychic, while college graduates were more likely to claim an out-of-body experience.1 This suggests that rather than decreasing belief, education influences the nature of the beliefs a person holds (e.g., belief in homeopathy v. astrology).

Critical Thinking and Paranormal Belief

Given that educational attainment in general is not a prophylactic against holding supernatural or paranormal ideas, researchers have zeroed in on critical thinking training. However, research on critical thinking indicates that current training strategies in general do not necessarily decrease belief in the supernatural. An Austrian study that utilized both the Cornell Critical Thinking Test and Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal found no significant relation between these measures and belief in the paranormal. On the other hand, there is some evidence showing that individuals with an analytical cognitive style subscribe to distinctly less conventional views of God (e.g., deistic, pantheistic).5 Other research has shown that individuals usually endorse supernatural beliefs simply because of a perceived consensus among others that these beliefs are, in fact, justified.6, 7 Thus, individuals may not necessarily—or at least consistently—engage their critical faculties in the assessment of supernatural beliefs; they may evaluate only the probability of their truth given the beliefs of others in their environment, and choose to believe (or not) on that basis.

magv19n4-cover-400px
Read more great articles like this one in Skeptic magazine 19.4: Diet Myths. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

This paper provides some evidence in support of the view that critical thinking may be as social as it is psychological. For the most part teaching critical thinking has focused on imparting specific cognitive skills to an individual thinker. What many critical thinking seminars and college courses overlook is the role of “fitting in”—critical thought may be as much about avoiding judgment and punishment from others as it is about the deployment of some “toolbox” of thinking strategies.

Despite the commonly held view that being aware of our cognitive biases is useful in combating faulty thinking, we argue that critical thinking is not strictly a cognitive issue. Too much focus on the psychological aspects that influence critical thinking may obscure the role played by a strong need to be social and to fit in. We present a meta-analysis that combines the results of multiple peer-reviewed studies published over the last several decades that evaluate the success of teaching critical thinking strategies in the classroom. In addition, we discuss some reasons for their limited impact.

Data and Methods

The purpose of this research is to consider the effectiveness of college courses in reducing belief in the paranormal and supernatural. These courses all had one or more of the following primary objectives: (1) to teach what science is, (2) to teach how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and/or (3) how to think critically about new information. Our search criteria included peer-reviewed empirical studies that: (1) measured belief in the paranormal pre- and post-course content, (2) took place at a university or college within the United States, and (3) in most cases, also measured critical thinking pre- and postcourse content. One caveat to this last criterion is that although the critical thinking tests used were not the same across studies (e.g., Cornell Critical Thinking Test v. Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal) they were all administered for the same purpose (i.e., to measure critical thinking) and have been independently statistically validated by other empirical work.

Each of the courses utilized in these studies took a slightly different approach and placed a different degree of emphasis on various paranormal phenomena. For example, course titles included: “Parapsychology,” “Science & Pseudoscience,” “Paranormal Phenomena,” “Paranormal Statistics,” “Research Methods in Psychology,” and “Psychology of Critical Thinking.” Researchers from each study gave students a survey to measure their belief in the paranormal (e.g., using the Paranormal Belief Scale) before and after exposure to the course content. Although research exists on the relation between critical thinking and religious belief8, we were more interested in how successful college level courses specifically designed to increase critical thinking were in decreasing belief in the paranormal (though “traditional religious beliefs” is one of seven subcategories measured in the Paranormal Belief Scale [PBS]9 that many researchers use).

We were able to collect statistics for only eight courses10 that measured the magnitude and direction of the change in paranormal belief. No other studies matched the search criteria listed above. Of the courses that did match, most had been taken by psychology undergraduates, and the studies contained significance tests to determine if paranormal belief scores changed in a statistically significant way after students were exposed to the course content. Basically they asked the question “Did the students’ general belief in paranormal phenomena decline?” In five out of those eight studies, critical thinking was also measured both pre- and postcourse.11 The significance tests in these studies answered the additional question: “Did the students’ critical thinking scores increase?” We were most interested to see if belief in the paranormal decreased along with an increase in critical thinking ability. With the few studies that met our criteria we conducted meta-analytic procedures that converted the significance tests to correlations between the pre- and post-scores. This allowed us to combine and contrast the studies as well as ascertain the strength of the relation between the preand post-change in scores.

Results

The first set of analyses explored whether or not these courses decreased students’ paranormal belief. The second set examined whether or not critical thinking scores increased.

First, the average effect size associated with a change in level of belief in paranormal phenomena pre- and post-course content was r=.67 which is very high, and statistically significant. The students’ purported belief in the paranormal declined significantly and substantially from the time they started the course to the time it ended. The reduction in paranormal belief was so significant that over 200 studies showing no such relationship would need to exist in order for these results to be statistically questionable.12 Therefore, it appears that these courses decrease purported belief, at least in the short term.

On the other hand, the average effect size associated with a change in critical thinking, as opposed to paranormal belief pre- and post-course content was r=.08. This tiny correlation wasn’t statistically significant—that is, this effect may well have shown up by mere chance. Taken together, we find that although students’ paranormal beliefs decline by the end of a course, their actual ability to think critically exhibits no corresponding increase. This suggests that they did not abandon paranormal beliefs because they became better critical thinkers.

It also suggests there may be other variables lurking here: tribal identity and social inclusion.

The Social Dimension of Critical Thinking

There are several reasons why students may report decreased levels of paranormal belief despite little or no increase in critical thinking. First, a caveat. It is possible that these students have actually employed their new critical thinking “toolkits” in the service of reducing paranormal beliefs, and that, for whatever reason, this increase simply wasn’t picked up in post-testing. However, this is highly unlikely to have occurred consistently across five studies. What more likely occurred is what we suggested above—a reduction in paranormal belief without any parallel increase in critical thinking ability.

Social Mechanisms

Why did paranormal beliefs decrease across these studies without an increase in critical thinking? We suggest three social mechanisms. First, the content of these courses might have raised more cognitive dissonance for some individuals than typical course content in psychology and philosophy. Calling upon students in an introductory course to question their “sacred” views on karma, astrology, spiritual healing and the like is probably more emotionally complicated than learning about Freud or Socrates. As a result, students may disengage from the course (consciously or not) and experience something akin to apathy. They may report a decrease in paranormal belief simply because they know this is what the course was designed to do. And they want to avoid the discomfort created by the introduction of conflicting new material— they just don’t want to think about it. While it seems desirable that they reported that their belief in the paranormal has declined that may be entirely motivated by apathy, due to a mildly uncomfortable social environment (in this case, the course and the classroom).

A second social mechanism might be fear of group exclusion. A classroom (or critical thinking “workshop”) is intrinsically hierarchical. In these instances, a leader (e.g., professor or organizer) disseminates knowledge about how to think to a group of students, who are expected to understand the information and internalize it as true. In this kind of social environment, hierarchies are rigid—there is a teacher and there are learners. In such a setting, self-reported beliefs may not be reliable if they simply reflect fear of reprisal or punishment for disagreeing with the views of the teacher and class. Fear of punishment or of ostracism may motivate students to report lower levels of paranormal belief at the end of the class. They may also be motivated by a powerful need for social inclusion, acceptance, and rewards—to “fit in” with a class that, it is assumed, tacitly endorses the professors’ views as the correct ones. Unlike the socially-induced apathy described above, fear of social exclusion may actually be sufficient to change the beliefs of students. Fear of reprisal or punishment may be enough to motivate genuine belief change. But such a belief change would be emotionally motivated, without the need for developing a critical thinking “toolbox.”

The third social mechanism is related to the second. In social environments with a rigid hierarchy (such as classrooms or workshops), students might report reduced beliefs in the paranormal simply due to an appeal to the authority of the hierarchy. That is, students might report lower levels of paranormal belief because they believe authority figures in general (i.g., professors) tend to be correct, whether or not the student understands the reasons for this (i.e., the professor’s supposed superior level of critical thinking). The appeal to authority is also a social environment mechanism because the professor is almost always the sole authority in the environment. If classrooms had two professors instead of one, and each had a different opinion about the validity of paranormal beliefs students might have responded differently. Again, it isn’t necessary that students learn to think critically in order to jettison supernatural beliefs. They could simply be responding to a generalized trust of authority figures.

If any one of the above mechanisms is operating in these classrooms or workshops, student belief in the paranormal will likely return to its original level as soon as they are removed from: (1) an environment that makes them apathetic, (2) an environment that ties critical thinking to social inclusion, or (3) an environment that contains an authority figure who promotes critical thinking about paranormal beliefs. Thus observed decreases in paranormal belief among students who take courses aimed at increasing critical thinking may be real in the short term, but not in the long term. Further study is required to understand how best to teach critical thinking that more permanently reduces belief in the paranormal and supernatural. END

References
  1. Bader, Christopher, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker, 2009. Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. New York, NY: New York University Press.
  2. Moore, David W. 2005. “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal: Little Changes from Similar Results in 2001.” Gallup News Service.
  3. Goode, Erich. 2011. The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why it Matters. NY: Prometheus Books.
  4. Rice, Tom W. 2003. “Believe It or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42(1).
  5. See, for example, Pennycook, Gordon, James Allan Cheyne, Paul Seli, Derek J. Koehler, and Jonathan A. Fugelsang. 2012. “Analytic Cognitive Style Predicts Religious and Paranormal Belief.” Cognition 123, no. 3: 335–346.
  6. Shtulman, 2013. “Epistemic Similarities Between Students’ Scientific and Supernatural Beliefs.” Journal of Educational Psychology 105(1).
  7. Gilovich, Thomas. 1991. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.
  8. For example, see work by Gordon Pennycook.
  9. A Revised Paranormal Belief Scale
  10. Based on the following studies (for a full reference list email authors): (1) Benziger, 1984, (2) Burke, Sears, Kraus,& Roberts-Cady, 2014, (3) Manza, Hilperts, Hindley, Marco, Santana, & Hawk, 2010, (4) McLean, & Miller, 2010, (5) Morier, & Keeports, 1994, and (6) Stark, 2012.
  11. Two of the studies did not measure critical thinking in addition to paranormal beliefs and a third study was an outlier.
  12. A “fail-safe N” was calculated to determine how many subsequent studies with a finding of no effect must exist. Our fail-safe N equaled approximately 242.

CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015 On the Future of Science and Humanity. Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, Carol Tavris, and more... Information and Registration
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Annus Mirabilis

Alfred Wegener's 1915 reconstruction of the drifting of the continents from a supercontinent of Pangea to today. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Alfred Wegener’s 1915 reconstruction of the drifting of the continents from a supercontinent of Pangea to today. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Every year of the 20th century included many scientific breakthroughs and achievements, but few years were as important as the year 1915—one hundred years ago this year. It seems odd that it stands out as such a watershed. World War I had broken out the previous August with the rapid German advance through the Low Countries and northern France and almost to Paris, then been beaten back by an Allied counteroffensive. By the beginning of 1915 the Allied and Axis lines across Belgium and northern France were deeply entrenched, and they would barely budge for three more long years of pointless slaughter. Yet despite these horrific events, science marched on. In physics, Einstein published his theory of general relativity, which gave us the concepts of space-time and warped space. His theory also successfully explained the peculiarities in the apparent motions of Mercury. (However, the paper was not widely read for a while because of wartime restrictions on circulating scientific publications). Ada Hitchins established the first radioactive decay series, showing that radium was a decay product of uranium. Pluto was photographed for the first time, although not yet recognized as a planet. Thomas Hunt Morgan demonstrated non-inherited genetic mutations in fruit flies, undermining the foundation of eugenics. The Nobel Prize in Physics went to the Braggs for their development of X-ray crystallography, which became important not only in geology but also was the key to unlocking the structure of the DNA molecule and many other scientific discoveries.

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A Token Thought for the Ancient Seeds of Science

ancient greek coin

Coins entered the world of ancient Greece by the 6th century BCE, shortly followed by the first material philosophers. (Image by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Precisely when the guttural croaks and screeching hoots of ancient humans became words is a mystery. We do know language can be measured in hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years—that is, humans have been physiologically capable of sharing observations about their surroundings for a long time. For most of history, the stories we shared have described a universe that is personal, emotional, and whimsical.

Then, about two and a half thousand years ago, something different happened. On the coast of modern day Turkey in a city called Miletus, a man named Thales wondered what everything in nature was made of. His answer was almost mundane: water.

It’s unlikely Thales of Miletus was the first to consider this question, nor the first to suggest an answer. Since none of his writings have survived the ages we are forced to rely on writers like Aristotle and Herodotus to speculate on the thoughts of this so-called ‘first philosopher’. But Thales represented the emergence of a way of thinking new in human history, where the universe emerges from a single system of impersonal qualities.

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The Masked Debunkery of Captain Disillusion!

"Captain Disillusion" (sometimes known by his alter ego Alan Melikdjanian).

“Captain Disillusion,” who is sometimes known by his alter ego Alan Melikdjanian. (Image by Susan Gerbic, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Colors adjusted for INSIGHT.)

YouTube’s champion of video justice, Captain Disillusion (@CDisillusion on Twitter), has a new piece out this week (see below) deconstructing this compelling viral “Rush Hour” video created by filmmaker Fernando Livschitz.

As an independent skeptical activist, Captain Disillusion has long used his YouTube channel and filmmaking know-how to debunk one bit of viral video chicanery after another—from hostile penguins to preternaturally skilled ping pong to Haitian UFOs (a case I discussed myself in eSkeptic).

When the Captain took up his quirky persona and pixel-fighting mission way back in the storied yesteryear of 2007, it was already possible for artists to create seamlessly photorealistic visual effects scenes on an ordinary home computer, quickly and easily, using only a few hundred bucks worth of software. Since then, the veil of illusion has only gotten deeper and the pace of malarkey more frantic. Never have we needed our champion more!

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eSkeptic for March 18, 2015


CONFERENCE May 29-31, 2015 On the Future of Science and Humanity. Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Shermer, Carol Tavris, and more... Information and Registration

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Blake Smith
Newly Released Challenge to Sykes’ Yeti DNA Findings

MonsterTalk host Blake Smith reports on a new paper rebutting DNA-based claims of an unknown bear species in the Himalayas, and places that new paper in context.

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MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) is available on the App Store
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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. Follow the RSS feed.

MonsterTalk # 96
Fear Itself

Why do we fear? What is fear? The Ressler Lab is located in the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, and the studies they’re conducting seek to understand fear at the cellular, molecular and neural-circuitry level of granularity. Dr. Kerry Ressler, head of the lab, joins us to talk about that research and the neurological basis of fear.


About this week’s eSkeptic

Sometimes strange things happen, the causes for which seem hard to explain. Sometimes, these occurrences are referred to as “supernatural” or “paranormal.” But, what do those words really mean? In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer describes what is meant by “supernatural.”

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: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. 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.

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What Does “Supernatural” Mean, Anyway?

by Michael Shermer

Ever since my Scientific American column appeared last year about the anomalous experience my wife Jennifer and I had on our wedding day involving her grandfather’s long-dead radio that mysteriously began to play music at an opportune moment (never active again), much discussion has ensued regarding the implications for belief in the supernatural, for which I penned a longer explanation and analysis on Slate. In a March 5 New York Times essay Tanya Luhrmann wrote about her own experience involving a bicycle light that mysteriously melted in her backpack, she concluded “Who’s to say that this had some natural explanation rather than a numinous one?” (paraphrased by Jerry Coyne). In response I wrote a letter to the editor at the New York Times, which they published on March 10:

To the Editor:

Re “When Things Happen That You Can’t Explain” (Op-Ed, March 5): T. M. Luhrmann opines that when things happen that cannot be explained, it opens the door for the possibility of supernatural or paranormal phenomena being real. She cites several examples of powerful personal experiences that people have had, including my own, which I recounted in my Scientific American column.

As interesting as such experiences are to read about, from a scientific perspective they mean nothing because there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. There is just the normal, the natural and mysteries we have yet to solve with normal and natural explanations. Until such time as we can provide natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena, we need do nothing with such stories because in science we will never be able to explain everything.

There is always a residue of unexplained phenomena, and in science it is O.K. to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Unexplained does not equal supernatural.

The always insightful biologist and skeptic Jerry Coyne wrote an analysis of both Luhrmann’s essay and my letter in which he concluded:

I mostly agree with what Shermer said, although part of the letter is confusing: “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural.” One could take that as a tautology: that such phenomena, because they can be investigated by the tools of science and reason, must be natural by definition, as they’re part of nature. But I think Shermer means more than that: that there is a natural explanation for everything that seems paranormal or supernatural. While everything we know about what happens in the cosmos supports this conclusion, it’s still logically possible that there is a God—a supernatural being—who uses forces outside of nature to interact with the world. If that were true, those interactions would not have “normal and natural explanations.” (I find the paranormal a bit more “natural-ish”, since if we could, say, move objects with our minds, there would almost have to be some natural but unexplained reason for that.)

Jerry makes a good point here, but let me add one final point on the matter as it seems to turn on what one means by “supernatural” and “paranormal”.

When I say that “there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural,” I mean that these words are just linguistic placeholders to talk about something for which we do not as yet have a normal or natural explanation. Analogously, when cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter” they don’t mean those words to be an explanation, only linguistic placeholders until they figure out what exactly is causing the as-yet unsolved mysteries (rotation of galaxies, accelerating expansion of the cosmos). But whereas cosmologists do not stop searching for the underlying mechanisms of the observed phenomena just because they have a label, religious believers and New Agers treat words like “paranormal” and “supernatural” (or “miracle”) as if they were causal explanations.

If it turned out that, say, people really could read other peoples’ minds and that they were able to do so because inside our neurons are tiny microtubules in which quantum effects happen that allow thoughts (patterns of neural firing) to be transferred from one skull to another at any distance (like “spooky action at a distance” effects that quantum physicists have measured in experiments), that would not be ESP or PSI, and we wouldn’t need to call it a “paranormal” effect because we would then know that the ability to read minds was due to the properties of neurons and atoms, and it would be subsumed under the sciences of neuroscience and/or quantum physics (quantum neuroscience?). (This is, by the way, an actual theory.)

As for the possibility that a God could be using other forces, “forces outside of nature to interact with the world” as Jerry says, if a God did that (through intercessory prayer, miracles, or whatever) in a way we could measure the effects of such interactions, wouldn’t that mean that God must be using forces measurable by our scientific instruments? Here I am reminded of the analogy drawn by the great British astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington in his classic 1958 book The Philosophy of Physical Science:

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

  1. No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
  2. All sea-creatures have gills.

In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observations.

An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” (1958, p. 16)

Extending the analogy beyond the physical sciences to all fields, regardless of what forces a God may use outside of our universe, if he’s interacting with our universe in a way we can measure it, then he must be using forces measurable by scientific instruments or our senses, so by definition they must be natural. What our scientific nets catch are natural fish. If one were to argue that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God? END

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Newly Released Challenge to Sykes’ Yeti DNA Findings

Image of silhouette of yeti-like creature

Illustration by Daniel Loxton. Originally published in Junior Skeptic 16, bound inside Skeptic Vol. 10, No. 2 (2003).

When Oxford geneticist Dr. Bryan Sykes decided to tackle the topic of Bigfoot, the cryptozoology community got very excited.  Would he identify some new unknown primate? Would the study legitimize research into cryptozoology? Would his evidence give more reason to doubt Yeti and Bigfoot’s existence?

Sykes’ paper Genetic Analysis of Hair Samples Attributed to Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Anomalous Primates appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in August, 2014. (Sykes’ co-authors were Rhettman A. Mullis, Christophe Hagenmuller, Terry W. Melton, and Michel Sartori.) It was the first legitimate large scale DNA survey of anomalous primate1 evidence. (If you’d like to understand why the discredited Melba Ketchum paper doesn’t qualify, I would commend to you the work of Sharon Hill who has compiled a set of well reasoned responses to the various Ketchum claims.) Sykes paper was released in conjunction with a multi-episode documentary called Bigfoot Files, produced by Channel 4.

Prominent folks in the Bigfoot community dismissed Sykes’ effort. Matt Moneymaker of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization (BFRO), famous for Finding Bigfoot, the animal planet “documentary series” which has failed to live up to its title in its six seasons of engrossing forest adventure role-playing, was especially harsh in his criticism of Sykes’ efforts. Moneymaker writes:

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15-03-11


Skeptic magaine 20.1, TERRORISM, available digitally in our App, and in print from Shop Skeptic

Skeptic magazine 20.1
Terrorism

The latest issue is now available digitally via the Skeptic Magazine App for iOS, Android, BlackBerry PlayBook, Kindle Fire HD, Mac, PC, and Windows 8 devices. You can also order the print issue from Shop Skeptic. Current print subscribers should receive this issue by the end of March.

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Donald Prothero
Willie Soon Be Gone?

Donald Prothero considers the undisclosed conflicts of interest of noted climate denier Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, who was paid over a million dollars by energy industry sources.

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SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 249

Skepticality is almost a decade old. In light of the upcoming landmark, Derek and the show’s usual crew of contributors decided they needed to start bringing to listeners different content to supplement the standard format. Today, we present the first installment of Skepticality: On The Side in which you can listen in on Derek, Susan Gerbic, Tim Farley, and Bob Blaskiewicz as they discuss the history of Skepticality, and some of the hot topics they have been following in the realms of skeptical thought and pseudoscience.

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Banana with food labels (illustration by Pat Linse)
About this week’s eSkeptic

Phenylalanine, butyric acid, methionine, sodium tripolyphosphate, 2-methylbutyl ethanoate, pentyl acetate, monosodium glutamate… What are all these long, hard-to-pronounce chemicals listed on food labels? Should we avoid them? In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D. decodes the preservatives, coloring, and taste-enhancers in food.

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 19.4: Diet Myths. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

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Decoding Food Labels

by Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. The SkepDoc)

It is only natural for food companies to present their products in the best light so people are more likely to buy them. If they can give the impression that their foods are healthy, low in calories, and low in added sugar, it’s to their advantage. But food labels can be confusing. What do all those long, unpronounceable words mean? Today, labels must show percentages of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients and list all ingredients in order of weight. Usually the label informs, but sometimes it misleads.

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Read more great articles like this one in Skeptic magazine 19.4: Diet Myths. This issue is available digitally in the Skeptic magazine App, and is sold out in print format.

Labels show the calories per serving, but be careful! What is a serving? How many servings are in the package? A can of fruit labeled 60 calories per serving contains 3½ servings or 210 calories. When my husband and I open a can of fruit, we’re likely to split it between the two of us, not measure out portions and save 1½ servings for a future occasion. A casserole dinner kit lists 240 calories per serving “as packaged” but 410 calories per serving “as prepared,” and there are 4.5 servings per package; handy if you are fixing dinner for 4.5 people. Labels can trick people into eating more calories than they think they’re getting.

Check the salt content, which is typically high in canned and prepared foods. Too much salt can be unhealthy. Roast beef contains 48 mg of salt per 100 gm; corned beef contains 950 mg per 100 gm. Canned salmon has 110mg; smoked salmon, as much as 1800 mg. Prepared foods may exhaust the entire RDA of sodium with a single serving.

Remember when cholesterol was demonized and all the product labels trumpeted “contains no cholesterol”? That label appeared on vegetable shortenings that were hydrogenated and full of trans fats that are much worse than cholesterol, so bad that they have now been banned by law in some places. The real irony is that cholesterol is a product of animal cells and is not found in any vegetable products. Labeling a vegetable oil or shortening as “contains no cholesterol” is as unnecessary as labeling salt as “contains no high-fructose corn syrup” or a cucumber as “contains no bacon.”

The Food Babe—the American blogger and food critic Vani Hari— rejects any foods containing ingredients she can’t pronounce. She is proud of her ignorance. I guess if water were labeled dihydrogen monoxide, she wouldn’t drink it. Wouldn’t it be better to try to learn what the big words mean and why the additives are there? Food manufacturers don’t throw in random chemicals just for the fun of it.

Preservatives

Our ancestors discovered early on that drying, smoking, and salting would preserve foods so they would keep longer. Additives make foods last longer and help prevent food poisoning. The average person consumes a pound of additives per year, but this includes 2000 different chemicals and the amount of each one is tiny. Arguably, making the food last longer outweighs any small theoretical possibility of harm from such tiny amounts. The poison is in the dose, and the food additives that are permitted by law have been tested for safety.

Radishes contain a substance that can cause goiters, oranges contain a toxin that could potentially cause birth defects, carrots contain the hallucinogen myristicin; there is practically no food that doesn’t contain some chemical that could harm people in large doses. “Healthier” hot dogs are advertised as containing no added nitrates and no preservatives, but they don’t advertise that one of the ingredients they use, celery juice, is rich in nitrates; there was no need to add preservatives because a preservative was already naturally present. The presence of toxins doesn’t mean we should stop eating food. The nutritional benefits of food far outweigh the negligible harm from tiny amounts of chemicals. Coffee contains 10 mg of known carcinogens per cup but is also the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet.

Washing apples to remove pesticide residue removes the natural surface wax that protects the fruit from drying up. When sellers wax their apples, they add morpholine to make the wax easier to apply; it converts to nitrosomorpholine in the body, which might cause cancer in animals in huge amounts. The amount from an apple is far safer than the nitrate naturally present in cabbage, which converts to carcinogenic nitrosamine in the body.

A box of mashed potatoes contains sodium bisulphite, sodium sulphite, citric acid, BHA, and BHT. These are anti-oxidants that prevent oxidation of fats, tie up free radicals, and preserve freshness. Rats get liver abnormalities from high doses of BHT, but they live about 25% longer! Mayonnaise contains EDTA, which ties up metal ions to keep food from turning brown. Calcium propionate is a preservative used in bread to keep it from going stale so you don’t have to buy it fresh every day. The holes in Swiss cheese are produced by natural propionic acid in the cheese, 20 times more than what is added to bread.

Sugar is a good preservative: bacteria can’t survive in high concentrations of sugar because of osmosis. That’s why you don’t need to keep honey in the refrigerator. Health food catsup uses corn syrup sugar instead of the table sugar used in regular catsup. It advertises “no preservatives” but catsup doesn’t need preservatives. It is 30% sugar, and bacteria can’t live in it.

Food Colors

Added food colors can be natural or artificial. Natural sounds better but isn’t always. The most widely used natural food color is caramel, used in cola drinks. In the production of caramel an animal carcinogen, 4-methylimidazole, is produced. Under Proposition 65 in California, all potential carcinogens must be listed on the label. To prevent scaring off consumers, cola manufacturers recently changed to a different technology.

Another natural color, cochineal red, is added to foods like cherry ice cream. It is made from crushed insects. If consumers were given a choice between natural insects and artificial colors in their ice cream, they might prefer the artificial option.

Artificial colors are controversial. The term “certified” only means that the manufacturing process has been checked to insure that it produces what it is supposed to. Synthetic food colors have been blamed for causing hyperactivity in children, probably unjustly. Red dye number 2 is banned in the U.S. but allowed in Canada. Red dye number 3 is used to color Maraschino cherries. It was found to cause thyroid tumors in rats, but only in male rats and in amounts corresponding to feeding a human 14,000 servings of fruit cocktail a day for 70 years. There is one legitimate reason for avoiding both synthetic and natural food colors: the foods they are added to are likely to be poor in nutritional value.

Taste Enhancers

Additives are used to improve flavor and texture. Some kinds of ice cream contain no cream, only milk solids and sugars. To provide the desired creamy texture they use natural vegetable additives such as carob bean gum, guar gum, and carrageenan. The hard-to-pronounce carboxymethylcellulose is added to prevent the formation of ice crystals. Artificial smoke flavor is produced by passing smoke through a water solution; the most toxic chemicals are not picked up by this process, so it should be safer than real smoke flavor.

Butterball Turkey doesn’t contain butter, it contains margarine made from palm oil and palm kernel oil, which have more saturated fat than butter. It contains sodium phosphate (sodium tripolyphosphate, STP or STPP) to retain moisture and improve texture. Some ignorant people have confused this harmless preservative with the kind of STP used in cars or with the phosphate used in incendiary bombs.

Butterball contains both “flavor” and “artificial flavor.” The first comes from natural sources, like milk or lactose components to imitate the flavor of butter. The second comes from synthetic sources. Imitation butter flavor contains a mix of butyric acid, glycol, organic acid, acetone, and ethyl butyrate; the combination of several chemicals is required to create the flavor.

Monosodium glutamate enhances flavor but may cause Chinese Restaurant Syndrome—symptoms include flushing, headache, numbness or burning in the mouth, a sense of facial swelling or pressure, and sweating. Some restaurants advertise they don’t use MSG, but they substitute seaweed, a natural source of MSG. Other foods like cheese, tomatoes, and eggs contain glutamate and form MSG in the presence of salt.

High fructose corn syrup isn’t much higher (55% vs. 50% in table sugar) and contains less fructose than some fruits. Labels may disguise sugar with other names: dextrose, maltose, invert sugar, honey, fruit juice concentrate, corn sweetener, malt syrup, molasses, etc. I’ve seen a single label list as many as 5 different kinds of sugar.

Should We Try to Avoid Chemicals?

We can’t avoid chemicals because everything is made of chemicals. Here, for example, is a list of the chemical ingredients of the ordinary all-natural banana:

Water, sugars (glucose 48%, fructose 40%, sucrose 2%, maltose <1%), starch, fiber, glutamic acid, aspartic acid, histidine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, arginine, valine, alanine, serine, glycine, threonine, isoleucine, proline, tryuptophan, cysteine, tyrosine, methionine, fatty acids, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, oleic acid, palmitoleic acid, stearic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid, capric acid, ash, phytosterols, E515, oxalic acid, E300, E306, phylloquinone, thiamin, colors (yelloworange E101, yellow-brown E160a), 3- methylbut-1-YL ethanoate, 2-methylbutyl ethanoate, 2-methylpropan-1-ol, 3- methylbutyl-1-ol, 2-hydroxy-3-methylethyl butanate, 3-methylbutanal, ethyl exanoate, ethyl butanoate, pentyl acetate, 1510, and ethane gas.

That list would be enough to scare the Food Babe half to death!

Eat fresh foods whenever you can, but when it is more convenient to eat processed foods, don’t be too concerned about the possible dangers.

For more information about nutrition, I highly recommend the free online course “Food for Thought” featuring skeptic “Dr. Joe” Schwarcz and his colleagues from McGill University. I learned a lot from it and borrowed from it in preparing this column. It will be offered again starting in October 2014. END

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Pandemic Pandering: A Special Report on Special Pleading

Pandemic Pandering: A Special Report on Special Pleading (Carbon Comic by Kyle Sanders in Skeptic magazine issue 20.1)

Pandemic Pandering: A Special Report on Special Pleading appeared in Skeptic magazine 20.1 (2015).

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Willie Soon Be Gone?

Screen-Shot-2015-02-21-at-2.21.21-PM-590x237
In the past few weeks, there has been a tremendous furor over the disclosure of the ethics of a noted climate denier, Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. He has been one of the “stars” of the climate denial lobby, spending most of his time speaking to right-wing media and denialist groups, and being promoted by prominent denialist politicians like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Even though the problems with his research, and with his funding, were public knowledge for many years, it made news because of recent discoveries revealed by the New York Times of just how much money he was paid for his work. His situation is even more problematic because he failed to report this funding in his publications and signed “conflict of interest” statements that he then violated. Naturally, the denialist institutes and right-wing media have fought back and defended their man, and Soon himself made a statement (brilliantly dissected by Greg Laden) to the press in his own defense. But the facts of the case seems incontrovertible, no matter what you might think of the climate change debate, and it appears that serious consequences will be forthcoming.

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15-03-04


NEW DOCUMENTARY FILM
Merchants of Doubt

A new documentary film opens this weekend titled Merchants of Doubt, about the nature of pseudo-skepticism and climate denial and the link to the tobacco industry, featuring Skeptic publisher Michael Shermer and magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, among others. In addition to the many climate deniers and their industrial lobbyists featured and interviewed in the film, Jamy Ian Swiss plays a key role in demonstrating, through card magic, how easy it is to be deceived and how, through his principle “once revealed, never concealed,” the exposure of the tricks employed by industrial lobbyists to deny science means that they cannot use them again (just like knowing the secret behind a magic trick makes it hard to be fooled again). Forewarned is forearmed. Michael Shermer is featured as a one-time climate skeptic, who flipped his position (famously in the pages of Scientific American) after reading the primary scientific literature on the subject. One of the more entertaining moments in the film is when a camera crew follows Shermer around FreedomFest in Las Vegas, a libertarian gathering where conspiracy theories about global warming abound, including a debate he participated in with a climate denier that was most colorful. Watch the trailer below, and find links to reviews and a list of theaters where you can see the film.


ON TOUR
See Michael in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany
March 9-20

From March 9–20 March, Michael will be touring book stores in various countries in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, giving lectures, and signing copies of his books for those in attendance.

View all tour dates & locations

NEXT DATE: MARCH 7
92nd St. Y (New York, NY)

It’s easy to identify history’s evil geniuses—the Hitlers and Stalins—but who are the moral geniuses among us? And what does it take to be one? How can science and religion help us do great work in the world—and stop us from using our singular human intelligence for ill? Get to the very heart of right and wrong when Professor Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and author of The Moral Arc, joins in conversation with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. MORE INFO

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COUNTER REFUTATION
Shermer responds to book reviews
The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (book over)

Visit the Moral Arc website for more information about the book, or click one of the following to order the book right now from Amazon, Shop Skeptic, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, iBooks, Kobo, and IndieBound.

The initial reviews of The Moral Arc are in and the author has completed his U.S. book tour, and in this article Michael Shermer replies to the criticisms and commentaries thus far leveled against his thesis that we are living in the most moral time in our species history and that one of the primary drivers bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice is science and reason. You will be astounded to learn that not only religious people, but some scientists and secularists themselves object to using science and reason to determine human values. Shermer challenges them to explain what they use, if not their rational brains, to solve moral issues!

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Daniel Loxton
George Orwell Versus the Flat Earth

Daniel Loxton shares reflections from George Orwell and George Bernard Shaw on the topics of flat-Earth arguments, expertise, and credulity in an age of scientific marvels.

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Dangerous Games (book cover)

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EPISODE 95
El D20ablo — The Satanic Panic & Role-Playing Games

The late 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of a new kind of game. Dungeons & Dragons and its many competitors captivated many high-school and college students, but many parents and authority figures feared that these new games were a gateway to Satanic ritual and perhaps even murder. Author Joseph Laycock returns to discuss his new book: Dangerous Games.

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