The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Lecture this Sunday at Caltech

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? (cover)
Dr. Bradley Voytek
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View
of the Zombie Brain

with Dr. Bradley Voytek
Sun. Oct. 19, 2014 at 2 pm
Baxter Hall, Caltech

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.

Followed by…
  • The Psychology of Magic (includes a magic show!)
    with Dr. Tony Barnhart
    Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 2 pm
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma
    with Dr. Andrew Hodges
    Sunday, December 7, 2014 at 2 pm

Read about
upcoming lectures

Buy past lectures on DVD

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:

Tim Farley
Challenging Psychics is Deadly
Serious Business

Tim Farley relates that "Psychic" Sally Morgan is in the news again as her representatives were apparently caught on camera physically threatening a skeptic.

Read the Insight

Mike McRae
Science On the Edge of Life

Mike McRae considers the possibility that recent Near Death Experience research reveals the existence of conscious, supernatural awareness in patients during cardiac arrest.

Read the Insight

Donald Prothero
Signs of Hope—and Despair
—on Climate Change

Donald Prothero discusses some recent highs and lows in the battle over science and climate change.

Read the Insight

Sheldon Helms (left) with Chip Coffey (right)

Sheldon Helms (left) with Chip Coffey

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.

Sting Like a …

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek speaks with Sheldon Helms, a member of the Bay Area Skeptics, and one of the people involved in Operation Bumblebee, a scouting operation put together by Susan Gerbic to attend one of self-described psychic Chip Coffey’s big events. Sheldon provides some details about his involvement in the operation, and how two teams of skeptics worked to put together a fairly detailed event.

lecture poster

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Demon Purrsession: Tales of Demonically Possessed Cats

Can a domesticated cat be a monster? What if it can talk, fly, predict the future and grow to enormous size? Get ready for some of the strangest lore we’ve ever covered on MonsterTalk as we interview art historian Dr. Paul Koudounaris about demonically possessed cats.

Art historian Dr. Paul Koudounaris has written some books that will probably be of interest to MonsterTalk listeners. The Empire of Death is a book about the history of Charnel Houses and Ossuaries. In his more recent book, Heavenly Bodies, you will discover astonishing works of art formed by decorating human remains. On October 16th and October 18th, Dr. Koudounaris will be giving lectures in London on his research: On the 16th he’ll be covering art and death, and on the 18th he’ll be discussing demonically possessed cats.

About this week’s eSkeptic

Among the strangest of all bizarre pseudoscientific notions is the idea that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are somehow a government conspiracy to spray us with toxic chemicals. In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero discusses how “chemtrail” conspiracy thinking fails the science literacy test.

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books.

“Chemtrail” Fail
Are contrails really toxic chemicals
sprayed by a secret conspiracy?

by Donald R. Prothero

For the past few years, my Facebook page kept flagging strange websites that claimed that ordinary contrails formed by high-flying aircraft are “chemtrails,” a special kind of chemical sprayed on the unwitting population for reasons too bizarre and illogical to take seriously. For a long time, I’ve ignored such wild Internet bafflegab, but in recent years it has gotten more and more pervasive, and I’ve encountered people who believe it. There are whole shows about it on the once-scientific Discovery Channel, and the History Channel as well, both of whom seem to have sold their souls to commercialism. Now all they seem to broadcast is one pseudoscientific show after another. Soon there will be a low-budget Hollywood movie release, Poison Sky, that will further spread this idea. The chemtrail conspiracy mongers circulate their photos and videos among themselves, post hundreds of videos on YouTube, and on their own sites and forums. But with the way the Internet works as a giant echo chamber for weird ideas with no peer review, fact checking, or quality control, it is becoming ever more difficult to ignore them, so it’s time to debunk it.

The first few times I heard about “chemtrails” my reaction was: “This can’t be serious.” But the people who spread this are serious. They are generally people who have already accepted the conspiracy theory mindset, where everything that they don’t like or don’t understand is immediate proof of some nefarious government conspiracy. But there’s an even bigger factor at work here: gross science illiteracy. The first thing that pops in my mind reading their strange ideas is “Didn’t this person learn any science in school?” And my initial rebuttal is: “Do you even understand the first thing about our atmosphere? Do the math! Anything released at 30,000 feet will blow for miles away from where you see it, and has virtually no chance of settling straight down onto the people below. And it will be so diluted it would have no measurable amount of the chemical by the time it lands. That’s why crop-dusting planes fly barely 30 feet off the ground—so their dust won’t blow too far away from the crops!” As skeptic Kyle Hill describes it:

If the chemtrail conspiracy were true, millions of pilots would be needed to crop dust the American population. A typical crop duster might use seven ounces of agent diluted in seven gallons of water to cover one acre of land. Chemtrail “people dusters” would use a similar concentration to cover the entire United States, just to be safe. For 2.38 billion acres of land, the pilots would then need—for just one week of spraying—120 billion gallons of these cryptic chemicals. That’s around the same volume as is transported in all the world’s oil tankers in one year. And such an incredible amount of agent would need an incredible number of planes. Considering that a large air freighter like a Boeing 747 can carry around 250,000 pounds of cargo, at the very least, the government would need to schedule four million 747 flights to spread their chemicals each week—eighteen times more flights per day than in the entire US.

The entire chemtrail conspiracy idea is a relatively recent one, and an idea that would not have become so popular without the ability of the Internet to spread ideas, no matter how ludicrous. As this site shows, it was an idea that was simmering among conspiracy theorists in the 1990s when one person in particular, William Thomas, made it popular back in 1996. By 1997–1999, he was trying to spread his ideas through interviews and media coverage and early conspiracy Internet sites, and managed to get many believers to buy in to his bizarre fantasy. Then in 1999, he was featured on Art Bell’s radio show Coast to Coast, which was conspiracy central at the time. If you wanted a quick way to reach the mob of UFO fantasists, paranormal fanatics, and conspiracy theorists, Art Bell’s show was the place in the 1990s. (Today Alex Jones wears the mantle of conspiracy central). Soon the chemtrail meme exploded far beyond William Thomas or Art Bell, and became a widely accepted idea among the people who tune in to the paranormal or the conspiracy mindset.

What are “chemtrails”? Supposedly they are different from normal contrails produced by aircraft, and allegedly they contain some sort of evil chemical with which the government is trying to poison us. Normal contrails are something we do understand, because there has been lots of research on them. Most aircraft engines leave a plume of hot gaseous exhaust from the hydrocarbons in the fuel they burn, and in the subfreezing conditions of the upper troposphere or stratosphere, those hot gases immediately condense to form long vapor clouds behind the plane as it flies. Sometimes just the disruption of the high atmospheric gases by the tips of wings will cause contrails, even without the benefit of engine fumes. If there are high-altitudes winds or the jet stream is active, they disperse quickly, but often they remain stable for many minutes in quiet air. Contrails were observed almost as soon as aircraft were able to fly at that elevation, and they are well documented in videos and photos of World War II aircraft, long before any of the current governments that are allegedly conspiring to do this were even in power.

As RationalWiki describes it:

On days when cirrus cloud formation is occurring, there is more moisture in the upper atmosphere, and consequently, contrails may linger longer before evaporating. Since cirrus clouds often precede a general overcast or haze, the casual observer could easily assume that the contrails have caused the overcast, or become the overcast. The persistence of contrails varies with weather conditions: sometimes they dissipate almost immediately, but often they will persist for hours, with crossing trails sometimes forming gridlike patterns that stretch from horizon to horizon. The “chemtrails” label is usually applied to these longer contrails, with their very persistence put forward as “evidence” that they cannot be normal contrails.

Even Indy cars with their speeds exceeding 200 mph produce contrails, another thing which shatters the silly idea that they were first visible in the 1990s in the sky.

Once you delve into chemtrail fantasists’ bizarre websites, you get a wide spectrum of different kinds of misconceptions, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods. The oddest is that people seem to think that contrails are some sort of new phenomenon, when as I just pointed out, we’ve been seeing them in the sky since planes have been flying at high altitudes. People apparently don’t remember seeing contrails when they were young, but that just testifies to the fallibility of human memory, because the photographic record of ordinary contrails goes back to before the 1930s. People don’t remember seeing contrails coming from their jetliner when they fly, but then they can’t look behind the plane in any commercial flight, so they can’t see the contrails—but they are there just the same.

Another confusion is the squishy definition of chemtrails, and how you can tell one from a regular contrail. Each “definition” gets modified and redefined as soon as the last one is explained, thus shifting the goalposts. Supposedly, contrails dissipate in minutes, while chemtrails linger for a while. Nope! The time a contrail lingers is dependent on what the upper-level winds are doing, not the chemical composition of the contrail. To prove this, we can find lots of films of contrails from World War II, and these contrails lingered for a very long time. Other definitions claim that contrails run parallel to one another, while “chemtrails” form “X” patterns or “grid” patterns. Once again, people forget how busy the skies above us are. In an area with a lot of plane traffic going in many directions, you’ll get every possible pattern of lines crossing one another. On the other hand, if you live in coastal Oregon or central California, most of the flights are north-south, so they tend to be more parallel.

Another claim is that they are spraying barium, or aluminum, or any other number of chemicals supposedly toxic to us. As this site demonstrates, none of these claims are true. More to the point, spraying them from 30,000 feet would be useless, since they would dissipate over a huge area and when they finally landed, they would be diluted into non-detectable, non-toxic amounts—and with the high-level winds, the odds are they’ll blow far away from where they are sprayed in the first place.

Then there are the claims that the Germans admit to doing it! This claim is easily debunked when you realize that the video footage that is used to support this claim deliberately mistranslates the German word Düppel (meaning “chaff”) to mean “chemtrail”. As this site shows, there are numerous video hoaxes about “chemtrails” all over the Internet, along with the normal footage of contrails that is misinterpreted. Apparently, hoaxing chemtrails is almost as popular as hoaxing ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot. There is also the claim that language about chemtrails got into a bill before Congress. The bill in question, HR2977, had a lot of UFO and chemtrail language originally inserted by a bunch of UFO enthusiasts, and then introduced in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who repudiated their unauthorized changes in the bill, and the chemtrail language was dropped. (Bills introducing strange notions to Congress are not unusual for Kucinich).

The list of additional weird claims and debunked hoaxes related to chemtrails goes on and on, and are addressed by this website. But ultimately it boils down to this question: why would the government be secretly spraying us for years? How have they pulled it off without even one person coming forward? Here’s where the fantasies of the conspiracy mongers take off. Supposedly, they are poisoning us to make us more docile, or to keep us compliant, or to weaken us; or the chemtrails are a secret program to combat climate change; or even weirder notions. Conspiracy nuts never ask the tough questions: if the government really wanted to poison us, wouldn’t they just put it in the water? It’s actually a very real possibility, as terrorism and security experts well know. Spraying chemicals from 30,000 feet is worthless.

If such a huge conspiracy really existed, and every country in the world, every military and commercial aircraft in the world, and every atmospheric scientist in the world is part of the conspiracy, why has it not leaked by now? Like every other outlandish claim of conspiracy theories, they envision a world where clandestine top-secret organizations are constantly pulling the strings, and not once has anything leaked about them doing it, or anyone who knows of it come forward. This, despite the fact that we get constant revelations of actual secrets from the CIA and NSA and FBI and other organizations all the time; note that no chemtrails were exposed in the Wikileaks affair or by Edward Snowden. Nor has any other person come forward in an age where journalists are constantly digging for secret information. For such a level of secrecy to exist, there would have to be an unprecedented ability for all these organizations to cover up their tracks, when in fact we have tons of evidence to show that every secret organization is only as secretive as its weakest link. And the bigger the conspiracy, the more likely it is to be exposed—yet the chemtrails conspiracy involves the entire planet, and many governments and organizations who are bitter enemies and would love to expose the wrongdoing of their opponents. Again, from Kyle Hill:

The incognito infrastructure needed to conceal the chemtrail conspiracy would dwarf any other governmental agency. Millions of people—pilots, engineers, chemists, data analysts, and boots-on-the-ground hazmat teams—would need top-secret clearance for information that could never get out. If a chemtrail conspiracy were true, chances are you would run into a few involved in the cover up everyday. An effort to keep millions of mouths silent—to keep any information from pilots or participants out of the media—makes the NSA look like child’s play.

As well, in aviation weight is everything. Every last gram of weight in an aircraft beyond the essentials needed to fly comes with a big fuel penalty, so both manufacturers and also those who own and maintain commercial and military planes are extremely careful with adding any excess weight beyond what is needed to make the flight possible. For the airlines to agree to carry all these chemicals, there would be a huge dent on their razor-thin bottom lines to do so. This implies a huge amount of government funding to compensate, none of which has ever been documented. The military jealously guards their use of equipment and fuel, since every flight and aircraft is already phenomenally expensive, and they can’t afford to weigh down a military jet with unnecessary cargo.

In short, the chemtrail conspiracy thinking fails on the same grounds that the 9/11 Truther conspiracy fails: it assumes a level of competence and secret-keeping in a government that has never happened and never will happen. As Michael Shermer quips whenever a 9/11 Truther speaks, “You know how we know 9/11 was not orchestrated by the federal government? Because it worked.” END

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