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Monkey Business

The spider monkey, a typical platyrrhine. (Image Courtesy WIkimedia Commons).

The spider monkey, a typical platyrrhine. (Image by Lea Maimone, via Wikimedia Commons. “Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey [Ateles geoffroyi].” Used under CC BY-SA 2.5 license.).

Monkeys are such fixtures of the jungles of Central and South America that we think of them as a permanent part of the landscape. But they are not. Only three groups of mammals formed the “Old Guard” that lived in South America since the end of the Age of Dinosaurs: the carnivorous marsupials; the sloths, anteaters, armadillos and their kin; and the native hoofed mammals. Yet monkeys are among the most abundant and conspicuous members of the New World mammals. Today, the New World monkeys (classified as “Platyrrhini” in reference to their flat noses) are incredibly diverse, with 53 species in 5 families, including howler monkeys, spider monkeys, woolly monkeys, tamarins, marmosets, and many more. Where did they come from?


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eSkeptic for May 27, 2015


Jamy Ian Swiss & Jack Velour performing close-up magic Friday, May 29

Exclusively for conference attendees only, you won’t want to miss Jamy Ian Swiss and Jack Velour performing close-up magic on Friday May 29 at The Westin Hotel. There will also be a dinner party and cash bar.

Jamy Ian Swiss (photo by Michael Bulbenko)

JAMY IAN SWISS is a magician, author, and public speaker with more than 25 years of skeptical activism experience. He has appeared internationally for presenters ranging from Fortune 500 companies to the Smithsonian Institution. His U.S. television appearances include CBS 48 Hours, PBS Nova and the PBS documentary The Art of Magic, and repeat appearances on The Today Show and The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He is the author of books including two collections of essays, Shattering Illusions and Devious Standards, and of The Art of Magic, the companion to the PBS documentary, and co-wrote the chapter “Explaining Magic” in Visual Explanations by Edward Tufte. He has produced and written for television, including Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular, and created the Discovery Channel special, Cracking the Con Games. He is producer of New York’s longest-running Off-Broadway magic show, Monday Night Magic, now in its 18th consecutive season.

Jamy is 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.

In a lengthy profile in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes, “Swiss is widely thought to have one of the most masterly sleight-of-hand techniques in the world today…” And Penn & Teller call him, “James Bond with a deck of cards as a pistol!”

Jack Velour

JACK VELOUR is a performer of close-up magic, where his audiences witness miracles from inches away. He has captivated thousands of people across the country, including numerous celebrities. After becoming a successful close-up magician in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Jack moved to California in 2012, where he continues to mystify audiences at corporate functions and private gatherings, and most recently Jack was invited to perform for record producer, Clive Davis, at his 83rd birthday party. Jack Velour’s performances are loaded with surprises and humor, creating a fun and enchanting atmosphere for almost any audience. He is also an active member of The Magic Castle in Hollywood.

Las Vegas Headliner Frankie Moreno & Mathemagician Art Benjamin perform Saturday evening, May 30
Frankie Moreno (photo by Killer Imaging)

FRANKIE MORENO is a musical virtuoso, pianist and performer prodigy turned Las Vegas headliner sensation! Frankie started as a child prodigy pianist and was first introduced to American audiences at the age of ten with his debut on CBS’s “Star Search”. Named Headliner of the Year in Las Vegas, making national television appearances, releasing a brand new album, and preparing a nationwide PBS Special titled “Frankie Moreno in Concert”, Frankie is capturing the attention of millions and leaving a lasting impression.

Art Benjamin

ARTHUR BENJAMIN is considered to be the world’s greatest living lightning calculator. If you have never seen him perform, you are in for a treat! Bring your calculators and challenge the master! Dr. Benjamin will not only demonstrate how he does calculations in his head faster than you can with a calculator, he will reveal his secrets and teach you how to do it yourself. Not only will he reveal his own secrets, he will demonstrate how the great lightning calculators of the past did it. Dr. Benjamin is the Smallwood Family Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. He has received numerous awards for his writing and teaching, and served as editor of Math Horizons magazine for the Mathematical Association of America. He has given three TED talks, which have been viewed over 10 million times. Reader’s Digest calls him “America’s best math whiz.” His newest book, out this Fall, is called The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring out Why.

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Daniel Loxton
History and Hyman’s Maxim (Part One)

Daniel Loxton reflects on one of skepticism’s most valuable sayings: "Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained."

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Eve Siebert
Botanist Makes “Literary Discovery of the Century”

A botanist claims to have discovered the only portrait of Shakespeare completed during his lifetime. Can plants be used to identify Shakespeare’s appearance and work?

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The Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lectures ON DEMAND, and ON SALE, now through Summer 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.

Browse All Lectures

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JUST ADDED! Alan Turing: The Enigma
Rent Andrew Hodges’ lecture, based on the book that inspired the film The Imitation Game

Alan Turing: The Enigma (book cover)

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912–1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades—all before his suicide at age 41. In November a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing will be released, based on the classic biography by Dr. Andrew Hodges, who teaches mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford (he is also an active contributor to the mathematics of fundamental physics). Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936—the concept of a universal machine—laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. Hodges also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program—all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime. Order the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma, from Amazon.

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Rupert Sheldrake & Michael Shermer

Beginning earlier this month, and continuing through July, is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Dr. Sheldrake will defend that science needs to free itself from materialist dogma; indeed, science misunderstands nature by being wedded to purely materialist explanations. By contrast, Dr. Shermer will defend that science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition.

Since May 1st, Sheldrake and Shermer have posted their opening statements, as well as a response and a reply on the topic of Materialism in Science.

Follow the Dialogue

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History and Hyman’s Maxim (Part One)

Ray Hyman demonstrates 'psychic' spoon bending in 2012

Ray Hyman demonstrates “psychic” spoon bending in 2012. (Image by Susan Gerbic [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

In a post last year called “The Forgetfulness of Skepticism,” I discussed one of the difficulties that skeptics face as a result of our small community and very broad subject area:

Generations of skeptics have devoted themselves to understanding paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, beliefs, and impostures. But even with those efforts, the fringe has remained radically under-examinded. Because this realm is so vast while the scholars and activists interested in exploring it are so few, our work has often had something of a scrambling quality. In our rush, skeptics have tended to neglect, or at least to set aside for some future time, some of the improvements of better-established fields.

Many other fields benefit from the attention of historical, theoretical, and philosophical spin-off disciplines. Consider, for example, art history, English literature, medical ethics, or philosophy of science. Skeptics, by contrast, are caught in a kind of perpetual startup culture. With so many urgent triage priorities, the considerable task of recording, maintaining, and passing down legacy knowledge becomes a “nice to have”—a luxury for further down the road. As a result, we tend not to remember very well.


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Botanist Makes “Literary Discovery of the Century”

Shakespeare, is that you? Detail from the title page of John Gerard's Herball

Shakespeare, is that you? Detail from the title page of John Gerard’s Herball

During the past couple of days, media outlets have been running stories claiming that the only authentic portrait of William Shakespeare made during his lifetime has been discovered by botanist and horticulturalist Mark Griffiths. Most of the articles include a quotation from Mark Hedges declaring this to be the “literary discovery of the century.” Is a portrait of a literary figure a literary discovery? I suppose that’s a semantic quibble that doesn’t really matter. Often great literary discoveries are made by scholars who study the relevant literary field, and great discoveries concerning art history are made by art historians. At first glance, a botanist writing about a portrait of Shakespeare would seem to be arguing outside his field of expertise, and Shakespeare tends to attract some peculiar interpretations. But that doesn’t really matter as long as Griffiths provides strong evidence in a peer-reviewed journal like Shakespeare Quarterly, or Shakespeare Survey, or one of several other scholarly journals dedicated to Shakespeare in particular or English literature in general.

Or Country Life, a weekly glossy magazine devoted, according to Wikipedia, to “the pleasures and joys of rural life.” It has featured articles on “Britain’s Best View, The Cream of Counties survey, England’s Favourite Village, Britain’s oldest inhabited dwelling (2003), and Dream Acres imaginary landscape (2009)” (Wikipedia). And, or course, “the literary discovery of the century” (2015). Hmmm. My friend Sharon Hill of Doubtful News often warns her readers about “Science by Press Conference.” That warning can be broadened to include all Scholarship by Media Blitz.


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eSkeptic for May 20, 2015

Daniel Loxton
Carl Sagan and the Dangers of Skepticism

Daniel Loxton shares an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50 (released in print format in Skeptic magazine 19.1 in 2014).

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Doctor Atlantis
MonsterTalk # 98

You’ve heard the legend of Atlantis. But have you ever heard the facts behind the legend? Dr. Kenny Feder returns to talk about the true story of Atlantis and it isn’t what most people think.

MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) is available on the App Store
MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) is available at Amazon for Android
MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) is available on Windows Store

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc, reviews The Gluten Lie: and other myths about what you eat, by Alan Levinovitz.

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

Food Faiths & Diet Religions

a review by Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc

The parade of diet fads is unending; they will continue to proliferate as long as humans have to eat. They have created a hellish world in which every food component is a potential demon: fat, gluten, carbs, sugar, wheat, salt, etc. Diet gurus, both professional and amateur, are always ready to tell us what to eat or not to eat. Their advice is supported by great enthusiasm and plentiful testimonials but little scientific evidence.

In his new book The Gluten Lie: and other myths about what you eat Alan Levinovitz examines the diet myth phenomenon from a refreshingly different viewpoint. He might seem like a strange candidate to author a book on diet. He’s not a nutrition expert, a doctor, or even a scientist; he is a scholar of religion. But that gives him a unique perspective. His expertise is in studying religious stories that function as metaphors. He says the key to understanding fad diets is not science, but history. “Once you see enough of the same archetypal myths and the same superstitions, new dietary claims start to look a lot like flood myths.”

They do indeed. The same memes keep repeating. Good vs. evil. Natural vs. manmade. Magical thinking: you are what you eat. The scary technology of the modern world vs. the idealistic Eden our ancestors supposedly enjoyed (they didn’t!). Evolutionary “Just So Stories” that convert what we think our ancestors ate into what we should eat or argue that since evolution didn’t equip us with sharp fangs, we shouldn’t eat meat. People presume to know Nature’s intentions. Clean, pure, virtuous foods vs. “unclean” forbidden foods, toxins, and sinful indulgence. We are being manipulated for profit by evil big corporations to the detriment of our health. Subconscious Puritan values kick in: if it’s pleasurable, it must be bad. Religious-like mantras divide the world into simplistic binary categories. Following the strict guidelines of the in-group proves you are a good person. Moral and religious vocabulary is inappropriately applied to scientific questions.

Levinovitz suggests that it would be helpful for scholars of folk and fairy tales to examine nutrition myths. Folklore studies would be able to classify diet stories into repeated story types like “miracle food from Tibet,” “dietary cures for chronic disease,” and “everyday food is poisonous.”

To many people science is suspect because of the steady stream of scientific reversals on butter, wine, or whatever food appears in the headlines. But he points out that these are not reversals at all, because nothing was ever established in the first place. The headlines report single preliminary studies that are questionable, not scientific consensus based on an accumulated body of reliable data. True science is humble, cautious, and embraces complexity and uncertainty.

“The unpleasant reality is that we don’t know what constitutes an ‘ideal’ diet, and there may be no such thing.” Eating in moderation has always been the common sense mainstay of diet advice, and science has added nothing that stands up to rigorous scrutiny. Levinovitz advocates removing the fear and restoring the pleasure in eating. “Fiction, not food, is the real demon.” With healthy helpings of history and skepticism, we can learn to laugh at fads and eat our dinner in peace.

As Levinovitz relates the history of MSG, gluten, fat, sugar, and salt, the repeated memes produce a strong sensation of déjà vu: someone makes a chance observation, gets an Idea that might explain the observation, extrapolates to apply the Idea to everyone, does a poor-quality uncontrolled study that seems to support the Idea, and persuades people to try his diet. They respond because the Idea strikes a chord, fits in with their worldview, is emotionally satisfying, and seems scientifically plausible. When they change their diet, they tend to eat healthier because they cook at home and eat less junk food. They feel better for psychological reasons and placebo effects, confirmation bias kicks in, and they spread the word with testimonials. Eventually more rigorous scientific studies debunk the Idea, but it is too late. MSG is exonerated, but people continue to believe MSG is the reason for their symptoms. Emerging evidence suggests that non-celiac gluten sensitivity may not be sensitivity to gluten but to FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols); if that is confirmed, we can predict that people will continue to believe gluten is the culprit. Once people’s minds are made up, they resist new evidence. Anecdotes and big Ideas reinforce powerful myths and promise simple solutions to a variety of health problems. Asking someone to question their food beliefs is tantamount to asking them to change their religion.

Levinovitz has done his research, and he understands science better than many scientists. He says,

If we are serious about the quest for good health, physical and mental, we cannot be slaves to fear and to our desire for easy answers. We must honestly admit our ignorance. We must recognize our capacity for self-deception. And when others—including medical and scientific professionals—refuse to do the same, we must learn to recognize their lies.

Most fad diets have been definitively debunked by scientific evidence. He doesn’t mince words: he says Grain Brain is a lie. Unfortunately, professional organizations don’t always follow the evidence. They promote their own lies, recommending low salt and low fat diets long after they should have been discarded for lack of evidence. They see themselves as experts and saviors and their egos won’t let them admit they have been giving their patients bad advice and making false dogmatic pronouncements about things that are far from settled. There is no good evidence that low fat diets are healthier. The low salt recommendations are practically impossible to follow; they may be advisable for a small sub-section of the population that is salt-sensitive, but for the rest of us, low salt diets are unnecessary and may create problems like potassium deficiency.

The book ends with two appendixes: (1) The Unpacked Diet and (2) UNPACKED: The Unpacked Diet. The first is a persuasive argument that the problem is not what you eat but what it is packaged in. It cites numerous scientific studies showing that plastics (like BPA), Styrofoam, and even aluminum have deadly health effects. By switching to Unpacked-approved packaging materials, you will experience health benefits: weight loss, sound sleep, lower blood pressure, no risk of cancer or Alzheimer’s, no more acne, dry skin or brain fog. It recommends a 9-day “detox” trial to see for yourself how much better you will feel when you avoid those toxic packaging materials.

The second appendix is an annotated version of the first revealing that it is a satire and showing how it copies the methods of diet faddists, reproduces their testimonials word for word, cherry-picks scientific studies that appear to support the thesis, uses faulty logic, plays on emotions, and is designed to thoroughly mislead readers. I would encourage you to read the first version and try critiquing it yourself before you read the second. It’s a good exercise to see how much you have learned from the book.

The Gluten Lie is well written, entertaining, solidly referenced, and perhaps the best debunking of popular diet myths ever. Reading it will equip you to quickly spot the flaws and the recurrent myths in the next fad that you will inevitably encounter. END

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Carl Sagan and the Dangers of Skepticism

This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50 (published in 2014 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 19, No. 1), which is a ten-page biography of Sagan emphasizing his work in scientific skepticism. A different short excerpt of another section of this story appeared previously in Skepticblog.

Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included some relevant citations here for your interest:


Cover of Junior Skeptic 50, inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 19, No. 1. (Illustration by Daniel Loxton.)

Carl Sagan cared a lot about kooky, far out, pseudoscientific topics. He knew this was quite unusual. He introduced a book section on these fringe science topics by saying, “The attention given to borderline science may seem curious to some readers. … The usual practice of scientists is to ignore them, hoping they will go away.”1 He wished other scientists would care more, and that they were more willing to share their criticisms in public:

I believe that scientists should spend more time in discussing these issues…. There are many cases where the belief system is so absurd that scientists dismiss it instantly but never commit their arguments to print. I believe this is a mistake.2


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The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

Leonard Mlodinow

From the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal, and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking): an account of scientific discovery from the invention of stone tools to theories of quantum physics. In this fascinating and illuminating work, Leonard Mlodinow guides us through the critical eras and events in the development of science, all of which were propelled forward by humankind’s collective struggle to know. From the birth of reasoning and culture to the formation of the studies of physics, chemistry, biology, and modern-day quantum physics, we come to see that much of our progress can be attributed to simple questions—why? how?—bravely asked. Mlodinow shows that just as science has played a key role in shaping the patterns of human thought, human subjectivity has played a key role in the evolution of science. At once authoritative and accessible, and infused with the author’s trademark wit, this deeply insightful book is a stunning tribute to humanity’s intellectual curiosity.

Order The Upright Thinkers from Amazon.

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eSkeptic for May 12, 2015


The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

Sunday, May 17, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech


FROM THE BEST-SELLING AUTHOR of The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal, and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking): an account of scientific discovery from the invention of stone tools to theories of quantum physics. In this fascinating and illuminating work, Leonard Mlodinow guides us through the critical eras and events in the development of science, all of which were propelled forward by humankind’s collective struggle to know. From the birth of reasoning and culture to the formation of the studies of physics, chemistry, biology, and modern-day quantum physics, we come to see that much of our progress can be attributed to simple questions—why? how?—bravely asked. Mlodinow shows that just as science has played a key role in shaping the patterns of human thought, human subjectivity has played a key role in the evolution of science. At once authoritative and accessible, and infused with the author’s trademark wit, this deeply insightful book is a stunning tribute to humanity’s intellectual curiosity.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order The Upright Thinkers from Amazon.

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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Leonard Mlodinow by Martin.haburaj — On TEDx Bratislava 2012. Previously published: Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel Loxton
Celebrating an Unbelievable Decade of Skepticality

Daniel Loxton raises a toast to the first 10 years of skepticism’s pioneering first podcast—and hopes for many years more!

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A Skepticality Decade

Derek, Swoopy, and Tim Farley jump on stage at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, GA for a live recording of the 10th anniversary episode of Skepticality. Learn some fun facts about the show and its hosts. There‘s even a surprise return of some of their original segments! What are Derek and Swoopy’s grand plans for the next ten years? Find out in this episode, celebrating 10 years of Skepticality!

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

Ray Hyman demonstrates Uri Gueller’s spoon bending feats at CFI lecture. June 17, 2012 Costa Mesa, CA, by Sgerbic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present a skeptical classic: an interview with a co-founder of modern skepticism: Ray Hyman. This interview first appeared in Skeptic magazine 6.2, back in 1998.

The Truth is Out There
and Ray Hyman Wants to Find it

by Michael Shermer

Three names dominate the early history of the modern skeptical movement: James Randi, Martin Gardner, and Ray Hyman. Perhaps less wellknown by the general public than the first two, Ray Hyman is the only one of the group with formal training in the experimental sciences (although the other two have more than made up for it with hands-on real world experience). That training has come in handy in Hyman’s dealings with pseudoscience and the paranormal, as he has continuously (from the 1950s on) conducted formal and informal investigations of all manner of extraordinary claims, from Uri Geller’s ability to bend spoons to the CIA’s remote viewing experiments. When the Department of Defense needed someone to investigate the Israeli spoon-bending psychic, they called Ray Hyman. When James Randi needs advice on statistical analysis, he often calls Ray Hyman. When Scientific American needed advice on experimental protocol to test a water dowser for their TV series Frontiers they called Ray Hyman. When the government needed an objective outsider to examine the data from the CIA’s remote viewing experiments, they called Ray Hyman. Hyman is meticulous in his research, careful in his analysis, and always thoughtful in dealing with claimants, many of whom it would be generous to call cranks and charlatans. But Hyman is more interested in how we all deceive ourselves than in how scam artists deceive the few us.

Ray Hyman turns 70 this year [86 as of the publication date of this eSkeptic], and with that he plans to retire from a long and productive academic career as an experimental psychologist. But this won’t slow his quest to find the truth about psi, the paranormal, and the psychology of belief, a quest which began when he was a young boy growing up as second of three children in Everett, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Hyman’s older brother was killed during World War II at Iwo Jima, and his younger sister is a recently retired college art instructor. His father was a native-born accountant and his mother was a dressmaker who immigrated from Russia. The only Jews in their neighborhood, Hyman’s parents fretted over “what the neighbors thought,” and for good reason in those less enlightened and tolerant days before WWII.

For the intellectually precocious Hyman, however, the religious impulse never clicked. “When I went to synagogue as a kid I’d come home and say, ‘This is a smelly place and the people there are crooks who come here and pretend they’re religious’. I never had a religious feeling.” The astute youngster began his data collection early by noting that “When I lived in Italy, the Catholic ceremonies were beautiful. I always felt I was missing something. I guess this could make people feel good, but I’ve never had any of that. I empathize with people who have, however.” He was bar mitzvahed at 13, but “that was the end of it. I didn’t understand what was going on and I could see the whole thing was a phony ritual.”

The product of a politically left-leaning home, Hyman was raised to worship Franklin Roosevelt. He observed “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) change from an ally and hero during the war against Hitler, to an arch enemy after the war. “This struck me as weird,” as did his father’s sudden loss of faith, which taught Hyman the power of belief systems: “I remember that when my brother got killed my father suddenly announced that he was an atheist. It was over, just like that. He had nothing more to do with religion of any kind.” The death of his brother also taught Hyman something about the psychology of anomalous experiences, and about probabilities. His brother landed on the beach at Normandy on D-day and survived. Later he was shipped to the Pacific, after which “I remember my mother had this dream that my brother was going to be killed and sure enough, next day or two we got the telegram. I told her, and I was only 16, ‘Look, you’ve been having that dream every night that he has been in the service!’ And practically everyone during the initial invasion of Iwo Jima was killed.”

Coupled to these youthful experiences was Hyman’s early interest in magic, and the lessons he learned from his first hero—Harry Houdini:

When I was in high school I went to every spiritualist seance I could find in the Boston area because I wanted to be like Houdini. I was going to expose all this stuff. The first thing I noticed was that I was the oddball there; it was mostly elderly women and a few elderly men…and me, this young kid! They accepted me, more or less, and I took some spiritualist development classes where they tried to teach us how to reach the spirit world. We were assigned a guiding spirit. I don’t know why, but all the spirits had American Indian names—one was Chief Looking Glass. After three or four sessions they were all doing it and pretty soon I was the only one not apparently seeing the spirits, so I finally dropped out.

It was his first official skeptical investigation that would lead to a lifelong quest to find the truth that he knew was out there…somewhere. I sat down with Ray at the January, 1998 “Gathering for Gardner Three” (G4G3), an eclectic collection of mathematicians, magicians, mentalists, game designers, scholars, scientists, and anyone interested in the varied intellectual products of clever minds, who gathered to pay tribute to their collective colleague and hero, Martin Gardner.

Skeptic: What sort of things did you discover about the world of spiritualism in those early experiences?

Skeptic magazine 6.2 (cover)

The article you are reading appeared in this issue of Skeptic magazine. Order the back issue.

Hyman: I’ll tell you a story. I was sitting in a general spiritmessage seance, performed as a come-on to get you into their private readings the next day. People put their “spirit messages” in a basket, and this old guy, blindfolded, pulled out the messages one by one, held them to his forehead, and pretended to read them. He was peeking down his nose under his blindfold and reading the message he had opened on the lectern while holding a substitute message to his forehead. Because he was older and his eyesight not so good, he was blatantly pushing the blindfold up and away from his eyes as he leaned forward to get a better view of the message. So I nudged the lady sitting beside me, but she was looking at the ceiling. She looked at me, looked around the room, then looked back up at the ceiling. I looked around the room and it dawned on me that none of these people were looking at this guy because they didn’t want to know it was a fake.

Related to this, every Wednesday night my father used to take me to professional wrestling matches at the Boston Garden, which he loved. Here I noticed that there was always a good guy and a bad guy, and I also wondered how these guys could still see when they gouged each other’s eyes out every week, and that there were all these different “world” champions (how many can you have?!). So it occurred to me that professional wrestling was also a fake. One time, just for fun, I began cheering for the villain, and this lady got up and came over and started swinging her purse and hitting me with it. After a while I tried to talk my father out of it but he didn’t want to hear it.

Skeptic: They willingly suspended their disbelief?

Hyman: Right. People don’t want to know the truth behind the façade. Decades ago this professor at Oregon State University put on this conference on confidence games and cons of all kinds (he called it “The Big CONference”). Jerry Andrus and I were there, and the Oregon State newspaper ran my picture with the headline HE TAKES AWAY SANTA CLAUS. I’ll always remember that because it is a good lesson on how people react to skeptics. Skepticism is always seen as negative, where people think we are are taking something away without putting anything back.

It reminds me of an experience I had as a professor teaching a course on pseudopsychology in 1970, just before Uri Geller came on the scene. At the end of the course a student came to me and said “You know, Professor Hyman, as a result of taking your course I now realize how I’ve been fooling myself. And I see how others fool themselves as well. But, you know, I wish I had never taken your class. I hate your guts.”

Skeptic: He was serious?

Hyman: Oh, yes, this was no joke. I realized again that people just don’t want to know. Many years later, for example, a wellknown magician came up to me and said he needed to talk to me. Paul was a very active skeptic, and at that time he was dating this woman who gave “readings” to people in Hollywood, but presented them as real. And he said to me, “You know, Ray, there is an ethical issue here. Do I have the right to try to convince them that they are being fooled? Is this fulfilling some purpose for them and I’m just taking it away?” That is a real issue for skeptics.

Skeptic: What is your answer to this ethical question?

Hyman: My answer explains why I’m always called the softy of the skeptical movement. Randi’s approach is to get out there and confront them. I’m the nonconfrontational skeptic. I’m the good cop, he’s the bad cop. I’m in the ivory tower, Randi’s out there in the trenches. I can afford to be flexible. He can’t. Out there you can’t give them any wiggle room. My approach is that I don’t want to shove anything down anyone’s throat. But if they want to know, I’m willing to tell them about it.

Skeptic: You’re not the proselytizing type?

Hyman: No. In fact, one of the main things I have against almost every religion is the proselytizing aspect of it. I tell them, “Look, if it is so good why do you need to sell me God?”

Skeptic: You’ve been interested in magic all your life. What is the connection between magic and skepticism for you?

Hyman: It is through magic that I got into skepticism. Most magicians are skeptics (unlike most mentalists, who tend to believe in the paranormal). So I always took it for granted as a magician that I was also a skeptic.

I did my first magic show when I was seven years old. My father gave me a magic kit that I took to school for “show and tell,” and the teacher thought it was good enough that she asked me to do it for a PTA meeting. So I did that and they gave me $5, which in those days was a lot of money. So I had a business card made and the printer called me “The Merry Mystic,” because we lived on the Mystic River at the time, and he put a rabbit and a hat on the card, so I was now a real magician. And I bought a top hat and the next week the library hired me for a story hour show, and it took off from there. I started getting shows regularly and hanging out at magic shops, and really learned the craft. And I did shows for money all the way through my last year of college at Boston University.

Skeptic: Is this how you got into palm reading?

Hyman: Well, early on in my magic career I realized I could make more money doing mentalism than magic. People would pay me at least three times more for a mentalism show than for a magic show. The reason is that they assumed the magic tricks were tricks, but that mentalism was real. I would always come out and tell them at the beginning, “Look, I am going to do something here but I’m not claiming any special powers, although I have practiced this a lot, so you decide what is going on here.” And with this I never got challenged. I was always considered a mind reader. After every show, and I was just a little kid, these women would take me aside and tell me about their personal lives and I was blushing, and they wanted a private reading with me. I realized that I only needed to get one little fact about them and they would attribute all kinds of powers to me.

Skeptic: How have you used this to better your understanding of the psychology of deception?

Hyman: When I was studying psychology, the “psychology of deception” was really the “psychology of conjuring.” The assumption was that if you understand how conjuring works you understand deception. But as I worked on an article about this, I realized that this cannot be the case because there is a big difference between conjuring and deception in everyday life. In conjuring, the last thing you want is for people not to realize they are being deceived. When I’m up there on stage, if people do not realize they have been deceived then I have failed as a magician. But in real life scam artists try desperately not to let the person know they are being deceived. Good con games take people over and over.

On the flip side, if people know they are being deceived and you can still deceive them through magic, that is a powerful lesson.

Skeptic: What did you learn about yourself in doing magic and mentalism?

Hyman: Going back in time, I did palm readings for years, and for awhile I had become a gung ho believer. I started as a skeptic but as I added things to my repertoire I became a believer. I couldn’t travel as a young magician so I was forced to play at the same places and had to come up with new things for them. This is when I took up palm reading. I watched people in the carnies and got to know them and picked up a lot of things from them. I didn’t want to do sword swallowing or anything like that, but with palm reading you could tell people all sorts of detailed things about themselves, like when they had a heart attack, at what age they were when they had a problem with their head, and so on.

By high school, even though I was a skeptic about most things, I believed in palm reading because it seemed plausible to me since the palm is physically connected with the body.

Skeptic: How did this tie in with your studies at Boston University? Were you a psychology major?

Hyman: Actually I was a journalism major. This was 1946 and out of a high school class of about a thousand, less than 20 of us went to college. I didn’t know what to major in, but my guidance counselor gave me a vocational test and he told me I should be a journalist. In my second year in college they gave me an assignment to interview a reporter, which I did, but this guy told me that the last thing you want to do to become a reporter is to take journalism classes! So I switched to psychology.

I distinctly remember an incident at Boston University—one of those you always remember—when the psychology department chair called me into his office one day, closed the door, sat me down, and proceeded to dress me down for doing palm reading, for taking people’s money under false pretenses, that there was nothing to this paranormal stuff and so on. I sat there listening to him and after he calmed down I said, “would you like me to read your palm?” So he stuck his hand out and I did a reading on him. Then I left. Two weeks later he called me back into his office, shut the door, sat me down, stuck his hand out, and said “tell me more!” This really showed me how powerful this stuff can be.

And in another one of those unforgettable incidents, the late Stanley Jaks convinced me to do a palm reading on someone and tell them the exact opposite of what I would normally say. So I did this. If I thought I saw in this woman’s palm that she had heart trouble at age 5, for example, I said, “well, you have a very strong heart,” that sort of thing. In this particular case, though, it was really spooky, because she just sat there poker faced. Usually I get a lot of feedback from the subject. In fact, I depend on the feedback, and this woman was giving me nothing. It was weird. I thought I bombed. But it turns out the reason she was so quiet was because she was stunned. She told me it was the most impressive reading she had ever had. So I did this with a couple more clients, and I suddenly realized that whatever was going on had nothing to do with what I said but with the presentation itself.

This was one of the reasons I went into psychology—I wanted to find out how it was that people, including myself, could be so easily deceived. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I am not as confrontational as Randi, because I actually see that “but there for the grace of God go I.”

Skeptic: You were a newly minted Ph.D. in 1953 from Johns Hopkins University. Throughout the next decade, what were some of the things you investigated that led to the founding of the modern skeptical movement?

Hyman: I was at Harvard for five years and there taught a class on con games, psychics, and so forth. Then I worked for three years in private industry, and after that I moved to the University of Oregon in 1961. I remember there was this lady in Russia who claimed she could read with her fingertips while blindfolded. An American woman who apparently could do the same thing was featured in Life magazine, and there was this American psychologist who was applying for grant money to study this woman in more detail. He wanted to figure out how she did it so he could train blind people to read this way. As a result, the National Institute of Health formed a committee to investigate her before they granted the funds, and they asked me to be on this committee.

So we went to Flint, Michigan, where this lady lived, and we watched the psychologist test her. The procedure was that he had her put her hands into these sleeves, and these went into a box where the reading material was, so there was no way she could be doing the nose peek technique. He would put inside the box three plastic chips, two of one color, one of a different color, and she could supposedly tell which one was the odd colored chip. He had previously tested her over thousands of trials and she was highly significantly—way above chance.

Well, when we met the psychologist he was eager to convince us he was using very strict controls, and he wanted us to help him make sure he was doing everything right. But we told him to do exactly what he had always done so we could see if there were any flaws in the procedure. But he added additional controls to convince us how careful he was. Well, it turned out that when he added these controls to his procedure the lady was only at chance level. He started making excuses, and so forth, so I told him to let me try it. I did and I got 100% right!

Skeptic: How did you do that?

Hyman: I learned in my research that it is very important when investigating these sorts of claims that you see everything that is done before the actual test. I had been there all day observing the psychologist, and I noticed that when he put in a new set of chips, he put the odd chip down first!

Skeptic: Obviously he didn’t realize he was doing this.

Hyman: No, and he was quite surprised that I was getting it right every time. So I explained what I was doing. We couldn’t be sure that she was consciously doing this—she might have unconsciously picked up the cue—but obviously something like this was going on.

Skeptic: Was this the start of the modern skeptical movement?

Hyman: Actually Uri Geller gets credit for that. In December, 1972, I was sitting in my office grading final exams when I got a phone call from Austin Kibler, a Colonel at the defense department, who worked in what was then called the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, set up by President Kennedy. It was sort of the Buck Rogers part of the defense department dealing with futuristic technologies. Kibler had a Ph.D. in psychology so we knew each other a little, so he called and said “Ray, could you drop whatever you are doing and go on a mission for us to the Stanford Research Institute?” I said, “No, I’m grading exams.” But he insisted. “This is very important. There is this psychic down there. I know what you’re thinking, but this guy is not like any other psychic you have ever seen. He can do anything most psychics can do, but he can also bend metal with his mind.”

I sounded incredulous, so Kibler responded, “I don’t necessarily believe, but I’ve watched him myself and let me tell you what he did. In a room of scientists, not just psychologists (he meant so-called “real” scientists like physicists!), he asked to borrow a ring. He said ‘Don’t let me touch it.’ He didn’t touch the ring, which was placed in the middle of a table. He concentrated on it and the ring stood on end, split, and shaped itself into the letter S.” When I inquired more about it, it became clear that Kibler had not actually witnessed this himself, but had heard about it, and this was another lesson to me about what actually happens and what gets reported.

So Kibler said he wanted to send a parapsychologist and me down there, along with someone from the Defense Department, to test this guy named Geller. His reasoning was that if he was a fake I would detect it, but if he was real it would take a parapsychologist to see it! And he wanted me to go right away because he said Geller was very volatile, very temperamental, and that at any moment he might just get up and leave. So he begged me to go and the next day I found myself in the presence of Uri Geller. And, frankly, I wasn’t very impressed.

But before I went down I called Martin Gardner because I had never heard of Geller, as had no one else in this country. He had never heard of him either. So I called Amos Tversky in Israel, because Geller was from Israel. He knew of Geller and said as far as he knew Geller was a charlatan and a trickster. He gave me some background about how Geller had worked the night clubs and stuff like that. Now, at that time Geller wasn’t very good. He couldn’t bend keys as well as Randi could, for example, but he got much better with practice.

Skeptic: Did you figure out the ring effect?

Hyman: Yes! When I got there they introduced me to Geller, who had already met with the parapsychologists Russell Targ and Harold Putoff, and they showed me records of some experiments they had done with Geller over the past week. I kept asking them about this ring effect. Turns out it was not a finger ring, like I thought, but these brass rings, and they showed me one that was twisted into a figure 8, and they said they measured the amount of pressure it would take to bend it by hand. So I asked them why they were talking about him bending it by hand, when he supposedly bent it with his mind. And they said, “Oh, he can do it either way”! So I said, “did anyone actually see him bending this brass ring without touching it?”

It turns out that none of them had actually witnessed this great feat of mental metal bending. This whole story about how the brass ring got bent was from Geller himself! Geller told them he did this, and they just believed them. It was amazing. In fact, half the things I had heard about Geller, came from Geller himself, not from someone witnessing them. He would do something simple like bend a key using a standard magic effect, then say, “Oh, don’t count that, usually I can do this” and he would hold up a key twisted in a cork-screw fashion. Then the parapsychologists would tell everyone they saw him bend the key like a corkscrew, instead of what they actually saw. It was unbelievable!

Skeptic: So there was both deception and self-deception going on here.

Hyman: It was part of their own folklore. When they would tell a story you were never sure if they had seen it or only heard about it. And when you pressed them it usually turned out that no one had ever witnessed Geller doing these amazing feats.

One of my favorite places to find stories that turn into facts is in autobiographies. In the autobiography of the late psychologist Jean Piaget he tells the story that his earliest memory in life was being on a tram with his au pair who was taking him in a stroller to a park, as she usually did, when these men tried to kidnap him and she fought them off. Piaget said he always remembered that event. In his 60s or 70s, when he was writing his autobiography, he got a letter from this woman, saying how she felt guilty about something she wanted to get off her chest before she died. In this letter she told Piaget that this event never happened. It was a story she made up.

Skeptic: It was a false memory!

Hyman: Piaget explained that it had become part of the family lore and he had incorporated it as one of his memories.

Skeptic: It’s like when people see a magic trick they report seeing something very different from what actually happened.

Hyman: The parapsychologists had no doubt that Geller was for real, but it was obvious to me what was going on.

I then wrote a 13-page letter to Martin Gardner describing everything that happened with Geller (I always share these things with Martin because he is great at keeping confidences), but for some reason this 13-page letter became public. A mutual friend was visiting Martin and he saw the letter and, without telling Martin, photocopied it. Within a few weeks the letter had been distributed all over the place and it got back to SRI and they were threatening to sue me, and Time magazine wanted to quote it, and so forth. And in the midst of all this James Randi got hold of the letter, and that’s how he got involved with Geller.

The next month SRI took Geller to New York to visit Time magazine and other places to try to get some publicity for him, in order to generate research money from other sources because they knew my report for the Defense Department was not going to be positive. So Time contacted Randi who by now had my letter and brought him to New York as well. They disguised Randi as a reporter who was in the room when Geller was doing his routine. The Time article came out in February or March, 1973. This was the first big American story on Geller, called “The Magician and the Think Tank.” So Geller’s first exposure in this country was a complete debunking. And he took off from there!

Skeptic: It didn’t faze him at all.

Hyman: No, in fact, it launched him! About a year later Randi called me. We knew each other through Martin Gardner, but I didn’t know him personally (we were both disciples of Martin, of sorts), and at the time he was traveling with the rock group Alice Cooper playing the role of a mad doctor. They came to Portland and I got a call from Randi to come up to see the show, and that Alice Cooper wanted to meet me. So we got to talking and Randi said he really wanted to do something about Geller.

The 1976 founding issue of The Zetetic, now known as the Skeptical Inquirer.

The 1976 founding issue of The Zetetic, now known as the Skeptical Inquirer.

As a result of this conversation, Randi, Martin Gardner and I formed an informal group called SIR—Scientists In Rationality—an obvious play on the Stanford Research Institute. We started holding informal meetings, like at Martin’s house, but none of us are administrators so there was a lot of talking but not much action. Then a sociologist at the University of Michigan named Marcello Truzzi heard about our group, and he contacted us and said he wanted to be a part of it. At that time Truzzi had a newsletter he called The Zetetic. It was simply a way of keeping academics informed about all this oddball stuff we were interested in, and he offered to do a newsletter for our group. So we took a look at a few issues and the three of us (Randi, Martin, and I) said “Yeah, why not?”

At about this time, Paul Kurtz was working at the American Humanist Association. He had managed to triple the circulation of The Humanist, and he put together the anti-astrology statement that got a lot of attention. One day he and Truzzi were talking on an elevator and decided to form a group. They gave it that horrible name I can never remember, and no one else can remember—The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal— which our enemies call the “PsiCops.” Then,Truzzi brought Randi, Martin and me into the group. They decided to have the first organizational meeting in 1976, in conjunction with a Humanist meeting that was already taking place at the State University at Buffalo. For some reason, however, Truzzi neglected to put my name on the list, so I wasn’t invited. Then, when they realized I was one of the original founders (along with Martin and Randi), they decided to invite me. I think Martin and Randi insisted on it. Everyone else had their way paid to the conference except me. And they refused to pay my expenses because they said I wasn’t in the original plans. So even though I was one of the three original founders, I had to pay my own way to this meeting! Also there were Phil Klass and Dennis Rawlins, who would become founding members.

Skeptic: This, then, was the founding of CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer?

Hyman: Yes. Truzzi’s The Zetetic newsletter was published two times the first year as a small-sized journal. The first issue dealt with the astrology controversy surrounding the so-called “Mars Effect.” Well, Rawlins and Truzzi didn’t really get along all that well, and Rawlins thought Truzzi was a closet Satanist or something, so Rawlins left the group a few years later after the problems surrounding the handling of the Mars Effect controversy. Complicating matters, Truzzi wanted to make the publication an academic journal, giving all sides an equal chance to speak their mind on any given issue, but others in the group were afraid that this could lead to the journal being taken over by the other side. The controversy over the purpose and goals of the magazine, plus personal differences with Paul Kurtz, resulted in Truzzi’s resigning as editor and leaving CSICOP. He was replaced by Ken Frazier, who was at that time an editor of Science News.

Making matters worse, The Zetetic featured an article on Scientology. Shortly thereafter a Scientologist got hold of a CSICOP letterhead, wrote a bogus letter on it and sent it out to various people, making CSICOP really look like we were witch hunters and loose cannons. (We found all this out a few years later through the Freedom of Information Act.)

Skeptic: What would it take to convince skeptics that there was such a thing as, say, psychic power? And here I am thinking of Alfred Wegener, who theorized about the possibility of continental drift in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the theory gained acceptance because it was not until then that the mechanism of plate tectonics was shown to be the driving force. In other words, evidence of continental drift alone was not enough. Scientists needed a mechanism to explain how it could happen before they accepted it. Is this the case with psychic power? Even if there were evidence, would we still demand a brain mechanism before accepting it?

Hyman: That’s right. I think of our research as a three-legged stool:

  1. Theoretical underpinning;
  2. Empirical evidence; and
  3. Research program.

Parapsychologists have a research program, but they have neither solid repeatable empirical evidence nor a theoretical underpinning.

Another thing that bothers me is the idea of a financial challenge to psychics. Scientists don’t settle issues with a single test, so even if someone does win a big cash prize in a demonstration, this isn’t going to convince anyone. Proof in science happens through replication, not through single experiments. Randi understands this, and he is careful to say this, but it gets lost in the PR effort. But many in the scientific community worship Randi because they wish they could be him. They wish they didn’t have the constraints of academia. He’s out there in the trenches, on the front line, and they envy him for that.

When I was involved in investigating the remote viewing experiments by the CIA, I had a similar discussion with Jessica Utts and Ed May, who wanted to know what it would take to convince me. I told them a story about a guy in St. Louis who said he could do remote viewing, but when we set up the experimental protocol he demanded that if the test came out positive I would say “I now believe.” I explained to him that “belief” is subjective, and I talked about how at magic conferences I have fooled even the best magicians in the world, and they have fooled me, so someday a psychic is going to come along and do something that I cannot explain, but this does not mean there is a real psychic effect here. It may just mean that I’ve been fooled. When I investigated the Ganzfeld experiments, for example, it took me three years to figure out what was going on.

Skeptic: Are there some things you can partially explain but in which there is still an element of mystery?

Hyman: Oh sure. In the CIA remote viewing experiments, for example, I can find some flaws, but their statistics look fine. This is not enough, however, to say that there is a real effect here. We have to wait and see if these experiments can be replicated. Dean Radin, in his book The Conscious Universe, took me to task for saying that I would never believe. Well, I didn’t say that. I just explained that these very rare cases where there is some statistical anomaly do not prove a real psi effect.

In Ed May’s remote viewing experiments, for example, he discovered that when he was the judge he got much better results than his other judges did because, he said, he knows the peculiarities of the answers of the remote viewers whose answers were never very specific. So he could interpret them one way or the other.

Skeptic: Did you make a conscious choice to become an academic scientist mainly interested in testing claims, rather than an activist out there debunking claims?

Hyman: I discovered early on that by playing the scientific game I lost the PR game. As a scientist I have to qualify my answers, and this does not make for good PR or good sound bites. For example, when the CIA remote viewing experiments story broke and Nightline had a show on it, I was supposed to be on. When Ed May objected to my participation they got the head of the CIA instead. But he didn’t really know the statistics or the research protocol. And even when I did do some shows on it, like Larry King Live, they mostly wanted to talk about the waste of taxpayer’s money. They definitely did not want to talk about the data, the research methods, or the statistics.

Skeptic: What does the future hold for skepticism?

Hyman: Good scientific research is very costly and time consuming. Given limited resources, I think we get more bang for our buck if we focus on the media and education—the opinion makers— instead of serious research. I think we need to be a credible source of reliable information.

Frankly I think it is useless to offer cash prizes and debunk psychics on television. You can do that until doomsday. The public doesn’t gain anything from this. I think we need to educate the public on the reason why these things appear real, on why we believe, on how we are deceived. These are epistemological questions. Most of us most of the time make decisions not on the basis of logic or science or rationality, but on emotion. Debunking without lessons is a waste of time.

I like to tell the story of the 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday who took time out from his scientific research to investigate table turning and spiritualism. Members of Parliament were actually consulting these tables for advice, so Faraday proposed a test, not to debunk these spiritualists, who he believed to be sincere, but to see what was really going on. On a table he structured layers on layers on layers of table tops tied together with elastic bands, and down the side of them he put pencil marks. If they were pushing the table from the top, the pencil marks would leave broken hash marks down the side. He also put a reed on the side to see if it moved. When the spiritualists’ eyes were opened, the reed did not move. When their eyes were closed, the reed and table moved! Faraday was actually conducting the very first biofeedback experiment. He showed not that these spiritualists were fakes, but that they were unconsciously moving the table themselves. They were self-deceiving.

The purpose of this story is to show that, in my opinion, it is more interesting, and in the long run more important, to show unconscious bias than outright trickery. Obviously the latter is important in the short term—we need to do both— but in the long term I want to learn something about the psychology of belief. END

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Celebrating an Unbelievable Decade of Skepticality

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the first full episode of the very first skeptical podcast, Skepticality—The Official Podcast of Skeptic Magazine (by a nose! The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe also released their first episode 10 years ago this week—essentially simultaneously). Listen to this one-minute Skepticality teaser, released on April Fools Day. These were the first sounds ever heard in the world of skeptical podcasting. A month later, Derek Colanduno and Robynn “Swoopy” McCarthy released their first full episode, which opened with these simple words: “This is Swoopy, and you’re listening to Skepticality—brought to you on Saturday, May 7th, 2005.”

“Seriously though: Derek, Swoopy…. I owe you guys everything.”

— George Hrab

So small, this birth of skeptical podcasting! And yet, so many things changed at that moment, as Skepticality and the Skeptics’ Guide stepped forward to show what a truly digital, grassroots skepticism could sound like, and what it could become.

Ten years, guys. It’s a helluva thing.


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eSkeptic for May 6, 2015


The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos

Sunday, May 17, 2015 at 2 pm (PST)
Baxter Hall, Caltech


FROM THE BEST-SELLING AUTHOR of The Drunkard’s Walk and Subliminal, and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking): an account of scientific discovery from the invention of stone tools to theories of quantum physics. In this fascinating and illuminating work, Leonard Mlodinow guides us through the critical eras and events in the development of science, all of which were propelled forward by humankind’s collective struggle to know. From the birth of reasoning and culture to the formation of the studies of physics, chemistry, biology, and modern-day quantum physics, we come to see that much of our progress can be attributed to simple questions—why? how?—bravely asked. Mlodinow shows that just as science has played a key role in shaping the patterns of human thought, human subjectivity has played a key role in the evolution of science. At once authoritative and accessible, and infused with the author’s trademark wit, this deeply insightful book is a stunning tribute to humanity’s intellectual curiosity.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order The Upright Thinkers from Amazon.

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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Leonard Mlodinow by Martin.haburaj — On TEDx Bratislava 2012. Previously published: Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Rupert Sheldrake & Michael Shermer

Through the months of May, June, and July of 2015, is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. This first month, the focus is on “Materialism in Science.” Dr. Sheldrake will defend that science needs to free itself from materialist dogma; indeed, science misunderstands nature by being wedded to purely materialist explanations. By contrast, Dr. Shermer will defend that science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition.

Read Opening Statements

Follow the Dialogue


To give readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:

Rupert Sheldrake Interview

Michael Shermer Interview

Attend the Live Recording of Skepticality’s 10th Anniversary Episode in Atlanta!
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

Skepticality is having its official 10th Anniversary recording in front of a live audience on Saturday, May 9th, 2015 at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, GA. There is no cost, or cover charge, just come and join the audience, and be part of one of the rare times that Skepticality is recorded for a live audience. Since it is the 10th anniversary, Swoopy will be there, along with some of the regular contributors to the show. At this event we will be unveiling the new, logo, website, and marketing materials which all of our loyal Patreon members have been waiting for. So, if you can make it out, this will be an event that only comes around once a decade! Hope to see you there!

More Information

Donald Prothero
Is “Brontosaurus” Back? Not So Fast!

Donald Prothero discusses strengths and criticisms of a new study of diplodocine sauropod dinosaurs, and considers the puzzling picture it paints of the lives and relationships of these gigantic animals.

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Rascals, circa 1978. First gay bar in LA with open windows to street.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Russell Friedman—skeptic, colleague, and friend of Michael Shermer—writes in response to Shermer’s article on the gay rights revolution. Friedman recounts his experience opening the first gay bar in Los Angeles with windows that faced the street, a big deal at the time as gays were still in the closet and all such public venues were hidden to the public and you had to know where to go to get in.

Russell Friedman is executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook, When Children Grieve, and The Grief Recovery Handbook for Pet Loss.

From Stonewall to Indiana with a stop-over in West Hollywood

by Russell Friedman

In the April 29 issue of eSkeptic Michael Shermer wrote an article (which also appeared in his Moral Progress Blog) entitled “From Stonewall to Indiana: The Collision Between Religious Freedom and Gay Rights.” Reading this was a trip down memory lane for me. Like so many people, after a difficult childhood I struggled to find my own identity, and then had to fight to maintain it in a cookie-cutter world that wants to fit people into convenient, easy-to-label boxes.

Although I had managed to graduate college, I had no profession and even less idea of what I might want to do with my life. I moved to New York because that’s what you did back in 1964 to seek your fame and fortune. Not having a trade to ply, I wound up working in a restaurant called The Proof of the Pudding. Although I really enjoyed working in that restaurant, I never adapted to life in New York. A year later, on impulse, I picked up and moved to London. I managed to get a legal work permit from the Home Office there and started at the ground floor as a busboy in a hotel restaurant. Over time I worked my way up to headwaiter and became even more convinced that I’d found what would be my life’s work.

Modern location of the old Rascals. Shows innovative openness -- novel at the time.

Modern location of the old Rascals. Shows innovative openness – novel at the time.

After my stint in the hotel restaurant, which earned me the UK equivalent of a Green Card, I was hired to run a wild and crazy Russian Bistro called the Borshtch N Tears, which is still there at 46 Beauchamp Place, a few blocks from Harrods. One of my co-workers at the restaurant, an older woman named Tan, told me her daughter was coming back from the Sorbonne in Paris because of the student riots. She asked me if I’d like to meet her. I said yes. I met Vivienne on Sunday. We got married on Tuesday, two days later, at the Chelsea Town Hall on King’s Road in London. It was very romantic, and illustrates that I march to my own drum.

As much as I enjoyed the restaurant part of my life in London, I didn’t feel entirely at home in London. So a few months after Viv and I got married, we packed up our meager possessions and moved to Los Angeles, West Hollywood to be exact. It was 1968 and West Hollywood had not yet taken on the sobriquet as a Gay City. Gay was not entirely out of the closet yet; gay men were constantly being arrested at the park on San Vicente; and the idea of formal gay marriage wasn’t even on the horizon. But the population, especially in the area between La Cienega on the East, and Doheny on the West was predominantly gay. The other major population groups were recent Russian immigrants and senior citizens. While there were occasional flare-ups between those groups, in the main there was a benign co-existence.

Tank top, T-shirt, and book matches. All that's left of the original Rascals.

Tank top, T-shirt, and book matches. All that’s left of the original Rascals.

West Hollywood was a true “live and let live” community, and for me, having struggled to find who I was and how to fit in, it was the perfect place. And it was here that I opened the first gay bar in Los Angeles with open windows to the street. Here is how it happened.

At that time, when gay was still mainly in the closet, most gay bars were like pill boxes, hidden on side streets with no windows on the world. You had to know where they were to find them. San Francisco was already wide open, but LA lagged behind. In 1970 Vivienne and I opened our restaurant, The Taming of the Stew. Two years later we changed the name to Lost on Larrabee. Larrabee was, and still is, a very short street, starting at Santa Monica Blvd. and only going a few blocks north to just above Sunset Blvd—thus the name.

After Viv and I divorced, my heart just wasn’t in the restaurant business any more. Essentially it was a mom and pop place, and mom was gone. In 1977, I closed the restaurant and made one of my former employees—who was gay—a business partner, and turned the restaurant into a gay bar called Rascals. The place was an instant success. On opening night, Wayland Flowers entertained the throng with his famous puppet character, Madame. (If you’ve never seen Wayland and Madame, treat yourself. Not long after we opened the bar I became the first president of the Tavern Guild of LA, which was an association of gay bar owners. I was the only straight member of the Guild. Here’s a description written by a man who worked for us:

Another view shows Rascals beautiful redwood carpentry.

Another view shows Rascals beautiful redwood carpentry.

Rascals was the first gay bar in West Hollywood to have huge windows looking out onto the street. We were also the first to have an obvious entrance facing the street. Most the bars at the time had entrances at the back or very unassuming doors at the front that were always kept shut. We were open to the street and proud of it. The bar was a huge success and started the move for bars to come out of the dark. We can thank Stonewall for the strength to do that.

The naming of the bar was also a quirky story. For the life of us, my partner, Larry, and I couldn’t come up with a name. We were buying the Racing Form every day and scanning all the horse’s names, looking for one to hit us. In the meantime, the graphic designer who was going to create our logo and signage was getting nervous since it was less than two weeks until our opening night and we still didn’t have a name. One late afternoon I got home and my daughter, who was then about 8 years old, yelled to her mother, “Mom, Ruscal the Rascal is home.” I tore out of the house, jumped into my car and raced to Larry’s house. I ran in and said “Rascals!” And there it was, the perfect name. So the first gay bar in LA with open windows to the street was named by an 8-year old girl.

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Another story that really ties into The Moral Arc elements: The parents of my new wife, Jeanne, came to visit us. They were very Catholic, and my mother-in-law was the ultimate church-lady. I was concerned that she would want to see her daughter’s business, and that she would take offense at what she saw. On the dreaded night that we took them to Rascals, we entered through the kitchen and came up to the end of the 60-foot long bar. The room was filled to the rafters with 200 plus young men, in tank tops and tight shirts, all model good-looking and awash in testosterone. The music was blasting out of massive 8-foot tall speakers. Although technically there was no dancing, the room was swaying as if one body to the disco beat.

My mother-in-law took in the scene, with me watching like a hawk to see her reaction. All of a sudden I realized that she was no longer looking at the sea of young men, with almost no women in sight. She was focused on the bar and the four bartenders who were slinging out drinks and raking in the cash. In a flash, her eyes turned into dollar signs and I could read her mind. It was saying, “my daughter’s getting rich.” That visit turned out great, with never a negative word spoken about our customers.

I have many fond memories from back in the day, but some sad ones too—my business partner, and everyone else who worked for us, died from AIDS. But as I watch the gay rights revolution unfold at warp speed today, I realize how brave they were back then to come out into a world that didn’t understand their brand of normal. I am proud to have been a small part of the live and let live world that we must keep encouraging. END

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