Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

top navigation:

14-07-23


Svante Pääbo, on Vimeo On Demand
Neanderthal Man: In Search of
Lost Genomes

Svante Paabo (photo by Frank Vinken)

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

Rent this video for $3.95 for a 72-hour period.

Rent this video for only $3.95 or
Watch the entire series for $49.

INSTRUCTIONS: Click the button above, then click the RENT ONE button on the page that will open in your Internet browser. You will then be asked to login to your Vimeo account (or create a free account). Once you complete your purchase of the video rental, you will then be able to instantly stream the video to your computer, smartphone, or tablet, and watch it for the rental period. Videos play best on Vimeo when you allow the entire video to buffer before viewing it.


Skepticality logo
Jason Silva

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

Shots of Awe
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 236

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


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

Photo by David Patton

About this week’s eSkeptic

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

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

Share this article with friends online.
Subscribe | Donate | Watch Lectures | Shop

A Rare and Beautiful Thing

by Daniel Loxton

Hello! Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are what motivate me to do this work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories do that. True stories do that.

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

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

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



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

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

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

Cover of Junior Skeptic 45, bound inside Skeptic 17.4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a goose egg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

Which Alexander was happy to sell.

Scroll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucian hands scroll

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

“When will Alexander’s imposture be detected?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Lucian do that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

We may be glad that he did.

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

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

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

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

Hume wrote,

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

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

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

Faces of skepticism

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

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

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

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

Joseph Rinn

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

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

He took Harry Houdini to his first séance.

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

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

#

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

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

And he lost.

There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.

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

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

Rose Mackenberg

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

It was her life’s work.

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

Detective Mary Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is beautiful to me.

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

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

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

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

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

And the moral calling to share that view is beautiful.

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

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

Thank you. END


Order books from The Amazing Meeting 2014

Order These Top Notch Books
from TAM2014

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction
by Eugenie C. Scott
Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
by Sally Satel & Scott Lilienfeld
50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior
by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, and Beyerstein
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
By Carol Tavris
Do You Believe in Magic? Vitamins, Supplements,
and All Things Natural
by Paul A. Offit, M.D.
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life
A 1995 National Book Award Finalist
by Daniel C. Dennett
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
A New York Times Bestseller
by Daniel C. Dennett
Bookmark and Share
Share this lecture announcement with your friends online.

14-07-16


Dr. Daphne J. Fairbairn, on Demand
Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom

Daphne Fairbairn

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

Rent this video for $3.95 for a 72-hour period.

Rent this video for only $3.95 or
Watch the entire series for $49.

INSTRUCTIONS: Click the button above, then click the RENT ONE button on the page that will open in your Internet browser. You will then be asked to login to your Vimeo account (or create a free account). Once you complete your purchase of the video rental, you will then be able to instantly stream the video to your computer, smartphone, or tablet, and watch it for the rental period. Videos play best on Vimeo when you allow the entire video to buffer before viewing it.


MonsterTalk logo
Dr. Christopher French
MonsterTalk # 85
Alienable Rites

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


About this week’s eSkeptic

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

Share this article with friends online.
Subscribe | Donate | Watch Lectures | Shop

ET Phone Me

by Michael Shermer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the lecture on DVD

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

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


Carbon Comic KickStarter banner

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

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

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

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

Back this project
($1 minimum donation)

Bookmark and Share
Share this lecture announcement with your friends online.

14-07-09


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

Leonard Mlodinow

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

Rent this video for $3.95 for a 72-hour period.

Rent this video for only $3.95 or
Watch the entire series for $49.

INSTRUCTIONS: Click the button above, then click the RENT ONE button on the page that will open in your Internet browser. You will then be asked to login to your Vimeo account (or create a free account). Once you complete your purchase of the video rental, you will then be able to instantly stream the video to your computer, smartphone, or tablet, and watch it for the rental period. Videos play best on Vimeo when you allow the entire video to buffer before viewing it.


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

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

Colliding Worlds
SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 235

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


About this week’s eSkeptic

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

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

Share this article with friends online.
Subscribe | Donate | Watch Lectures | Shop

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

by Dustin White

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

Becoming a Faith Healer

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

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

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

Illustration copyright 2014 by Pat Linse

Illustration by Pat Linse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bookmark and Share
Share this lecture announcement with your friends online.

Closer To Truth:
Does the Cosmos Have a Reason?

What remarkable discoveries are being made in cosmology! Cosmologists now develop credible theories about the beginning and end of our universe and theory-based speculations about vast numbers of multiple universes. But does the cosmos have a reason? Could revolutionary ideas support some kind of ‘universal reason’? The bar is set high, and it is OK to say no. Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviews Michael Shermer, for CloserToTruth.com.

Bookmark and Share
Share this lecture announcement with your friends online.

Closer To Truth:
Does Evil Refute God’s Existence?

Evil is a high hurdle for theists. Given the savagery of moral evil (what humans do to humans) and the horrors of natural evil (earthquakes, tsunamis, disease), how could an all-powerful and all-good God exist? Philosophers offer defenses (evil and God do not contradict) and theodicies (reasons why God allows evil). The problem is the sheer amount of evil. Robert Lawrence Kuhn interviews Michael Shermer, for CloserToTruth.com.

Bookmark and Share
Share this lecture announcement with your friends online.

get eSkeptic
our free newsletter

Science in your inbox every Wednesday!

eSkeptic is our free email newsletter, delivered once a week. In it, you’ll receive: fascinating articles, announcements, podcasts, book reviews, and more…


Popular Articles
on skeptic.com

Here are the articles that people have been sharing over the last few days.

Carbon Comic

Carbon Comic (by Kyle Sanders)

Carbon Comic, which appears in Skeptic magazine, is created by Kyle Sanders: a pilot and founder of Little Rock, Arkansas’ Skeptics in The Pub. He is also a cartoonist who authors Carbon Dating: a skeptical comic strip about science, pseudoscience, and relationships. It can be found at carboncomic.com.

Help the
Skeptics Society
at no cost to you!

Planning on shopping at Amazon? By clicking on our Amazon affiliate link, which will open the Amazon Store in your Internet browser, the Skeptics Society will receive a small commission on your purchase. Your prices for all products remain the same, yet you’ll provide essential financial support for the work of the nonprofit Skeptics Society.

amazon.com

See our affiliate links page for Amazon.ca, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble links.

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience? If so, you know how compelling they can be. They are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

Reality Check

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future

The battles over evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations, and the causes of AIDS, alternative medicine, oil shortages, population growth, and the place of science in our country—all are reaching a fevered pitch. Many people and institutions have exerted enormous efforts to misrepresent or flatly deny demonstrable scientific reality to protect their nonscientific ideology, their power, or their bottom line…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine

Topics include: chiropractic, the placebo effect, homeopathy, acupuncture, and the questionable benefits of organic food, detoxification, and ‘natural’ remedies.

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

Copyright © 1992–2014 Skeptic and its contributors. For general enquiries regarding the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine, email skepticssociety@skeptic.com or call 1-626-794-3119. Website-related matters: webmaster@skeptic.com. Enquiries about online store orders: orders@skeptic.com. To update your subscription address: subscriptions@skeptic.com. See our Contact Information page for more details. This website uses Google Analytics, Google AdWords, and AddThis tracking software.