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Monsters & Science

MonsterTalkLogoIt’s almost Halloween and for some of you that means you’re gorging on scary movies and planning your kid’s trick-or-treating costumes. If you like monsters and scary stories but don’t care for the kind of credulous treatment they always get on documentaries this time of year, you might enjoy a few choice episodes of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters. While we do enjoy a lot of listeners from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, I get the impression that some people haven’t tried out the show because they have reduced the field of monsterology down to a binary question of “is it real?” With a ready answer to that, they dismiss further inquiry.

The utility of monsters as a tool for science communication has more possibilities than that simplistic approach suggests. What we’ve tried to do with MonsterTalk is extend the “is it real” question with additional discussion such as:

  • Could this monster ever exist?
  • What evidence for it exists outside of legend?
  • If it couldn’t exist, what is possible within the constraints of real world science?

And we also try to ask what monsters our guests consider to be their favorites. It’s fun to hear what historians and scientists like to imagine lurking in the shadows.

You don’t have to subscribe to MonsterTalk to listen to an episode. Here are some links to the show-notes for some appropriately themed Halloween topics. On these pages you can click the “play” button and hear the shows without subscribing. We’re also working towards getting transcripts of all our episodes (such as this one), which will let both search engines and the hearing-impaired consume our content.


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Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Eve Siebert
Kirk Cameron and His Critics: Is Halloween Christian or Pagan?

Eve Siebert explains that while fundamentalist Christian actor Kirk Cameron’s defense of Halloween is simplistic and wrong, those who have criticized him by asserting that Halloween derives from the pagan festival of Samhain also make simplistic and inaccurate claims.

Read the Insight

Donald Prothero
Woo in the White House

Donald Prothero reflects on the pseudoscience of astrology and the powerful influence of Joan Quigley, the recently deceased astrologer to Nancy Reagan during most of the years of the Reagan Administration.

Read the Insight

Daniel Loxton
Video: TAM 2013 Skeptical History Workshop

Daniel Loxton shares video from the “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 2013 conference, in which he was joined by Ray Hyman, Robert Sheaffer, Susan Gerbic, and Tim Farley.

Read the Insight

Barbara Drescher
More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

Barbara Drescher digs further into the roots of irrationality in Part Two of her exploration of the difference between rationality and intelligence.

Read the Insight

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Caitlin Doughty with instruments (photo)

Caitlin Doughty

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.

Death Business

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek steals some time away from Caitlin Doughty (a past guest of Skepticality in 2012, right around Halloween). Once again, Caitlin comes back for the spooky holiday time of year to discuss her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory: a personal account of what it’s like to work in the “death business.” Find out a bit more about how Caitlin, born and raised in sunny Hawaii, found herself working as a professional in the business of death.

Owl on Halloween night ( free illustration by friztin downloadable from
About this week’s eSkeptic

Horror is both the human emotion, and the artistic genre designed to produce that emotion. What is it really, and why do we regularly seek out such an unpleasant experience? In this week’s Halloween edition of eSkeptic, Stephen T. Asma discusses “horror” and our fascination with it.

Stephen T. Asma is the author of On Monsters: an Unnatural History of our Worst Fears (Oxford University Press), and Against Fairness (University of Chicago Press). Asma is a Fulbright Scholar, a fellow at the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture, and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.

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The Biological and Psychological
Basis of Horror

by Stephen T. Asma

We live in the age of horror—from entertainment to geopolitics. The word “horror” comes from the Latin verb horrere, to “stand on end” or bristle. The term is often used today to designate an artistic genre that began with the gothic literature of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818) and Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow, 1820), and continues to the present, with authors like Stephen King and filmmakers like George Romero and Wes Craven. But “horror” is also the ineffable emotion that we experience when we’re at the very extreme of fear. Horror is both the human emotion, and the artistic genre designed to produce that emotion. What is it really, and why do we regularly seek out such an unpleasant experience?

Not only does one’s hair stand up with terror, but many other common physiological changes overtake the horrified person. Anthropologist and neuroscientist Melvin Konner explains that “the sympathetic nervous system is aroused during fear and flight as well as during rage and attack. The nerve net, balanced by the braking power of the parasympathetic system, spurs the increase of heart rate, rise in blood pressure, increased flow of blood to the muscles, and decreased circulation to the viscera that accompany fear and flight in many animals.” These sudden changes are also accompanied by the reflexive emptying of bladder and bowel, in order to help an animal prepare for fight or flight.

We also know that fear has a significant hormonal component. Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, and adrenaline are some of the hormonal triggers and gates associated with fear. Scientists have been able to manipulate these in the laboratory and produce more and less fearful behavior in mammals. Experiments with mice have shown that if biologists insert a gene that makes corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), they will produce a more fearful mouse. But removing the gene that builds the CRH receptor, thereby gating the entry of the hormone, will result in an extremely fearless mouse.

But horror is filled with many strange hybrid creatures and dismembered beings that far exceed the shapes and behaviors of regular predators. When Ichabod Crane, or anybody in this genre, encounters a menacing headless person, their fear might be broken down and analyzed in terms of cognitive mismatch. The sight of a combined normal (human) and abnormal (headless) creature bearing down on you, is a mental phenomenon of confusion between what should be the case (having a head) and what is the case (no head). And perhaps this confusion produces fear as an automatic secretion from the cognitive tangle.

Psychologists Donald Hebb and Wolfgang Schleidt separately experimented on fear in animals and found that fear is not a result of a hardwired phobia of specific predators, but a developmental arousal of our cognitive categories. When birds and mammals are born they have flexible categories that store associations. But these categories solidify quickly after birth and become default ways of interpreting the world. When any strange creature appears (one not corresponding to any default categories), the subject becomes aroused and fearful. According to psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation” experiments, human default categories solidify around six-months old, and babies after that time are much more frightened by anything “strange.” The mismatch, according to this theory, causes the fear and arousal.

The philosopher Noel Carroll invented the term “category jamming” for experiences that violate our folk taxonomy of nature (hybrids), or violate our categories of animate and inanimate (cue zombies for the transitional stage). This view fits quite nicely with Hebb’s and Schleidt’s mismatch theory. Carroll arrives at his own mismatch theory by noticing that most horror monsters are disgusting as well as threatening, and we’re especially disgusted by “impurity.” Things that we find impure, and consider as abominations, are usually indeterminate entities—in between normal categories of being. For example, blood, feces, spit, snot, and vomit all blur the usual categories of me and not me, or human and not human. So many monsters have mucus-like slime oozing off them, or gelatinous blebbing, or sexual undulation, or viscous uncanny twisting.

Carroll thinks that it is this cognitive slippage, invoked by monsters, that explains why we are both repelled and drawn to horror films and novels. The fascination and arousal produced by categorical mismatches, is the solution to the paradox of why we seek out an experience that is at least partly unpleasant. This argument is somewhat compelling, but perhaps a bit too cognitive and intellectual, and not deep enough into the cellar of our reptilian brains.

Many of the creatures of the horror genre—like the “face-hugger” creature in Alien—are composites of real-life natural history enemies. Snakes and spiders horrify most humans, so mixing them together into one creature may well amplify the terror. Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is a human universal, especially in children. Biologist Tim Flannery asks, “Why do so many of us react so strongly, and with such primal fear, to spiders? The world is full of far more dangerous creatures such as stinging jellyfish, stonefish, and blue ringed octopi that—by comparison—appear to barely worry most people.”

Flannery offers a Darwinian story that connects human arachnophobia to our African prehistory. Since Homo sapiens emerged in Africa, he suggests that a species of spider could have been present as an environmental pressure. If humans evolved in an environment with venomous spiders, then a phobia could have been advantageous for human survival and such a trait could be expected to gain greater frequency in the larger human populations. The six-eyed sand spider of Western and Southern Africa actually fits that prediction very well. It is a crab-like spider that hides in the sand and leaps out to capture prey. Its venom is extremely dangerous to children, and one can see how a fear of spiders, in this African context, would have been highly advantageous. So our contemporary arachnophobia may be a leftover from our prehistory on the savanna.

Is the phylogenetic “memory” of ancient danger somehow rewritten in our contemporary brains as Flannery seems to be suggesting here, or is the categorical mismatch system enough to make spiders and snakes horrible? Some evolutionary psychologists expect to find a morphological archetype of “scary spider” somewhere in the inherited mental landscape, but the developmental mismatch theory suggests a different mechanism to explain the same universal phobia.

If early Homo sapiens babies spent most of their first year strapped to their mothers or otherwise protected (and off the ground) by parents and alloparents, then creepy-crawlies of every variety would, once encountered, radically disturb the default categorical systems laid down in the child’s first six months. The same argument can be enlisted to help explain other cases of predator-based phobias, like fear of big cats, crocodiles and murky water, and other ecological threats. It also explains similar phobias in our primate cousins (chimps have snake phobias too). And if we add the emerging imagery and stories of early human culture (e.g., cave paintings and gestural reenactments), we can see how “adaptive horror” can be strengthened, reinforced and transmitted beyond the automatic process of categorical mismatch.

The cultures of horror are built upon the adaptive biology of fear, but we’ve now become connoisseurs of terror. And we’ve had a long history of recruiting this biocultural emotional system to help us demonize our political enemies. But horror also helps us prepare, so to speak, for real terror. As Stephen King says, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” END

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Kirk Cameron and His Critics: Is Halloween Christian or Pagan?


Actor Kirk Cameron. Image by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Kirk Cameron, former child actor and current fundamentalist Christian and Young Earth Creationist, is promoting a new film, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Based on the trailer, it seems that Kirk’s brother-in-law, Christian, played by the film’s director and co-writer Darren Doane, isn’t enjoying the Christmas season: it’s too commercial and has pagan roots. It’s just not Christian enough for Christian. Luckily Kirk is there to show Christian that every element of Christmas is directly related to Jesus and Christianity. The proselytizing and forced merriment make me want to slap a reindeer.

But Christmas isn’t the only holiday Cameron wants to save. He also has big plans for Halloween. In an interview with the Christian Post, Cameron explains that Christians shouldn’t hesitate to celebrate Halloween because it is, like Christmas, an entirely Christian holiday:

The real origins have a lot to do with All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve. If you go back to old church calendars, especially Catholic calendars, they recognize the holiday All Saints Day, with All Hallows Eve the day before, when they would remember the dead. That’s all tied in to Halloween.


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Woo in the White House

The news just came out that astrologer Joan Quigley died on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at age 87. Unlike most astrologers who just mess up the lives of a few ordinary people with their phony mumbo-jumbo, Quigley had the ear of Nancy Reagan during most of the years of the Reagan Administration. For seven years, Quigley had extraordinary power over the events of the Reagan White House. Although Nancy Reagan minimizes her influence, Quigley herself claimed in her 1990 book, What Does Joan Say?: My Seven Years As White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan, that:

I was responsible for timing all press conferences, most speeches, the State of the Union addresses, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One. I picked the time of Ronald Reagan’s debate with Carter and the two debates with Walter Mondale; all extended trips abroad as well as the shorter trips and one-day excursions.

White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan wrote in his 1988 book For the Record that “the president’s schedule—and therefore his life and the most important business of the American nation—was largely under the control of the first lady’s astrologer.” Once the news leaked out, the Reagans had to distance themselves from Quigley as the nation ridiculed the idea that astrology was a valid way to make executive decisions. A New York Post headline said, “Astrologer Runs The White House.” Another joke suggested that Reagan create a Cabinet post in charge of voodoo.


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Video: TAM 2013 Skeptical History Workshop

Photograph by Susan Gerbic, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Daniel Loxton at TAM 2013 “Preserving Skeptical History” workshop. Photograph by Susan Gerbic, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is continuing to move video content from their “The Amazing Meeting 2013″ conference onto YouTube. I was very excited that year to put together a workshop on a topic roughly one thousand times more fascinating than it sounds: “Preserving Skeptical History.” I was joined by INSIGHT’s own Tim Farley, Robert Sheaffer (leading UFO skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer columnist since 1977), and Susan Gerbic (of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project). We also enjoyed, as a special honor, the participation of psychologist Ray Hyman—leading parapsychology-critic and co-founder of the modern skeptical movement.

As organizer, I took the liberty of introducing the workshop with some remarks about the value of historical approaches within skepticism, the text of which I published at Skepticblog under the title “Should Scientific Skeptics Care About History?” I then segued into a practical discussion of historical sleuthing, including such topics as finding rare sources on no budget and the unwelcome news that microfilm is still a thing. This portion may be of interest to teachers, students, and grassroots skeptics.


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More On Why Smart People Are Not Always Rational

In a previous post I discussed the fascinating case of Paul Frampton who, as the website News Observer put it, “instantly was transformed from superstar particle phenomenologist with three Oxford University degrees to international tabloid fodder” when he fell for a honey trap drug smuggling scam. In it, I talked about irrationality in Mensa, the “high IQ society”, and the fact that rational behavior is not, as most of us assume, a direct product of intelligence.

If rationality is not a product of intelligence, then what is it a product of?


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Artwork from Pterosaur Trouble

Daniel Loxton Wins Victoria Book Prize

Pterosaur Trouble (book cover)2014 Victoria Children's Book Prize Winner

Daniel Loxton, author of Pterosaur Trouble (Kids Can Press) was named the winner of the 7th annual Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize worth $5000. Illustrated by Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith, Pterosaur Trouble is book two in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series. It follows the pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus, a majestic flying reptile, as he encounters a pack of tiny but vicious dinosaurs.

Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic, the children’s science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel previously won the 2010 Lane Anderson Award for his Junior Skeptic-based book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.

All three volumes in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series (Ankylosaur Attack, Pterosaur Trouble, and Plesiosaur Peril) are available from Shop Skeptic, as are Loxton’s books Evolution and Abominable Science! (2013, Columbia University Press, co-authored with Donald Prothero).

Get all 3 books for $45

INSIGHT at banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Donald Prothero
Reports of the Demise of Books
Are Greatly Exaggerated

Donald Prothero, author of over 35 books, considers claims that the future of publishing belongs exclusively to pixels over paper.

Read the Insight

Blake Smith
Of Pods and Monsters

Blake Smith defends the value of the examination of monster beliefs, arguing that “In the world of cryptozoology you, see the entirety of belief writ small.”

Read the Insight

Dr. Katherine Freese, On Demand
Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter

Dr. Katherine-Freese.jpg

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

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.

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Dr. Richard Sugg
MonsterTalk # 92
Fangs That Go Bump
in the Night

We’ve all seen the vampires of cinema and pop culture. Caped aristocrats, sparkling teens, monstrous revenants—which of these best corresponds to the real legends of vampires? Richard Sugg returns to talk about his fascinating research into historic vampire cases. He’s uncovered a recurring relationship between outbreaks of vampirism and poltergeist activity, which will be the subject of his next book.

Alfred Wallace Celebration (UCLAS)

Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial Celebration at UCLA

November 15, 2014, 9am – 4pm
Schoenberg Hall, UCLA Campus

UCLA will be hosting an exciting weekend in November commemorating the life and legacy of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), the co-discoverer along with Charles Darwin of evolution by natural selection and the father of biogeography.

Distinguished Speakers
9am – 12 pm
Andrew Berry, Jared Diamond, Ed Larson & Michael Shermer
1pm – 4pm
Frans de Waal, Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes, and Wade Davis
  • Full Day Registration: $35 ($30 tax deductible)
  • Half Day Registration: $25 ($20 tax deductible)

Registration includes coffee and light refreshments, souvenir program, field notebook and book signing opportunity. Seating is limited, register early. For assistance with registration, please call 310-206-6503.

More information

Order tickets

All proceeds will support the A.R. Wallace Fund, providing need-based financial support for field research and discovery in international settings.

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Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain

Dr. Bradley Voytek

WITH THEIR ENDLESS WANDERING, lumbering gait, insatiable hunger, antisocial behavior, and apparently memory-less existence, zombies are the walking nightmares of our deepest fears. What do these characteristic behaviors reveal about the inner workings of the zombie mind? Could we diagnose zombism as a neurological condition by studying their behavior? In Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?, Dr. Bradley Voytek, a professor of computational cognitive science and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, applies neuro-know-how to dissect the puzzle of what has happened to the zombie brain to make the undead act differently than their human prey. Combining tongue-in-cheek analysis with modern neuroscientific principles, Voytek shows how zombism can be understood in terms of current knowledge regarding how the brain works. Voytek draws on zombie popular culture and identifies a characteristic zombie behavior that can be explained using neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and brain-behavior relationships. Through this exploration he sheds light on fundamental neuroscientific questions such as: How does the brain function during sleeping and waking? What neural systems control movement? What is the nature of sensory perception? Order Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? from Amazon. A book signing will follow the lecture.

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Of Pods and Monsters


MonsterTalk is a free audio program about science and monsters, presented by Skeptic magazine. Discover our podcasts today!

A reader recently wrote in to Skeptic to complain about the inclusion of zombies in the content. I’m not 100% sure if this was directed at MonsterTalk, the podcast I produce, or at Skeptic itself because of an upcoming Skeptics Society lecture (scheduled for today at 2 pm at Caltech) about zombies and neuroscience by Bradley Voytek, one of the co-authors of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? I had both Bradley and his co-author Timothy Verstynen on a recent episode of my show.

The letter read, in part:

I cannot believe the attraction that zombies have for sane persons, especially skeptics. Please leave off all future discussions of such a childish, paranormal, boring subject matter.

I don’t work for Skeptic and wasn’t sure if the complaint was meant for me, for Bradley, or for Skeptic’s management? But I responded because it turns out I do have some strong feelings about the role of monsters and the paranormal in the skeptical world. What follows is a lightly edited version of my response to the author of this email:


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Reports of the Demise of Books Are Greatly Exaggerated

eBooks may be popular, but they are not going to replace paper books any time soon. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

eBooks may be popular, but they are not going to replace paper books any time soon. (Image by Maximilian Schönherr, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

— Mark Twain

When I was writing geology textbooks in the late 1990s, many people came up to me and say “Paper books are dead! In ten years, all books will be electronic, and there will be no market for books in any other form.” I kept hearing those prophecies, year after year, especially when Kindle and tablet computers took off less than 10 years ago. Nevertheless, I kept on revising my various geology textbooks and they kept being printed in new paper editions. Eventually, my publishers went to publishing parallel electronic and paper editions. But here we are, almost 20 years since I heard those first dire warnings, and electronic media have not completely replaced books in paper. Vinyl and cassette tapes and now CDs have been replaced by newer audio media, VHS tapes have been replaced by DVDs and now by streaming videos, typewriters have been replaced by many generations of computers and software, film cameras by digital cameras and now by camera phones, slide rules by calculators and now by phones which do that job, and many other technologies have come and gone in my lifetime—but paper books, which have not changed fundamentally in over the 500 years since Gutenberg printed the first Bible, have not.


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