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Astonishing Legends, Questionable Facts

Posted on Oct. 17, 2017 by | Comments (4)
Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

Drunken Owl Wine Bottle Holder (Photo © 2014 Joseph Oliphint Photography. Image used by permission of Rodney Brazil at HomeWetBar.com)

A small percentage of the population self-identifies as “Skeptic.” This is somewhat different than being skeptical. Anyone can be skeptical, but what I usually call “capital-S” Skeptics are people who are so interested in the methodology and practice of scientific-skepticism that they label themselves to signal to others with a single word that they value these processes enough to say that what they most believe in (or strive to practice) is filtering information through the sieve of science.1

Within this group of Skeptics, there is a sub-set who enjoy researching fringe, paranormal and Fortean topics, which Sharon Hill and Jeb Card refer to as “spooky” topics. It’s a small group of people who value science and critical thinking and try to apply those tools to stories of mysterious monsters, strange phenomena, and magical events — all the while maintaining an enthusiasm for researching and thinking about (dare I say enjoying?) these stories.

I’m in that latter group. I frequently describe it as being in a ghetto within a ghetto. I don’t know if there is a useful and handy shorthand for this group of folks — perhaps Spooky Skeptics? Regardless, from this peculiar vantage we often find ourselves having to defend against stereotypes of skeptics as “armchair naysayers,” “scofftics,” “denialists,” “cynics,” “pseudoskeptics” and “the closed-minded.” This is from the printable pool of undesirable labels; there are many less savory ones. Because of my membership in this peculiar subculture, I find myself urged to defend science in communities whose familiarity with the long, deep history of science criticism is shallow, but whose passionate distrust of Skeptics is deep. CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.


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Confessions of a Skeptical Marketer

Posted on Dec. 13, 2016 by Steve Cuno | Comments (26)
illustration

Every job has its moral dilemmas. There’s the bus driver who must drop passengers in questionable neighborhoods. The theater cashier who isn’t allowed to say, “You really want to see that stinker?” The fast food server who must suppress an urge to chastise a customer who has no better taste than to order a hotdog with ketchup.

At the more serious end of the continuum are people like the former Born Again Christian minister I met a few TAMs ago. Former, because, upon his embracing skepticism, conscience compelled him to give up his ministerial career. With it he gave up his livelihood, prestige, an adoring congregation, and a good many friends. As for the years and money he’d invested in chasing down an advanced theological degree? “Oh well,” he said.

So I can hardly complain. As a self-employed advertising and marketing practitioner, I have the luxury of deciding what work I will and will not accept. And because I work with multiple clients, declining or resigning one here or there hurts but won’t put me out of business.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is chagrined to realize he is old enough to have been in the advertising business for 38 years. He started the RESPONSE Agency 22 years ago. He is the author of numerous articles and two books on marketing, but his favorite role has been that of as-told-to author for Joanne Hanks in her memoir, "It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon Ex-Polygamist Ex-Wife. You may have noticed that Steve likes putting the word “confessions” in titles.


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The Century-Long Fight Against American Quackery

Posted on Sep. 29, 2016 by Robert Blaskiewicz | Comments (8)
A typical fraudulent cancer "cure" highlighted in the American Medical Association's Nostrums and Quackery (1912)

A typical advertisement for a fraudulent mail order cancer “cure,” highlighted in the American Medical Association’s Nostrums and Quackery (1912).

This summer, I spent a week in Chicago examining the files of the American Medical Association’s Bureau of Investigation. The contents illustrate the full range of weird health-related beliefs found in the 20th century, and it is interesting to watch how these beliefs track with historical events in the development of medicine and to see the role the AMA played in defining what was medicine and what was not. Having sampled the contents of this archive, I can say that there are entire careers in skepticism and the history of pseudoscience to be made excavating those files.

In the 19th century, popularly available health remedies were regulated, as far as I can tell, principally by the consciences of the people who made and sold them. Remedies were sold by pharmacists to anyone who asked for them, and there was really no limit to what could be said to sell these nostrums, either on the label or in advertising. There was no requirement to disclose the contents of a treatment. So let’s say you had a “catarrh” treatment. Catarrh is a word that encompasses all sorts of sinus blockages. If you were to take a treatment for a stuffy head, you could almost expect the remedies to have an alcohol base and a variety of other medically active substances mixed in with it. A health remedy might be up to 25% or more alcohol, and it would not have to be disclosed on the bottle. That alcohol might be mixed with morphine, chloroform, opium, cocaine, and/or caffeine, in undisclosed concentrations and without quality control. Sure, you might forget about your stuffy nose, but you might well become a coke addict, an opium eater, or an alcoholic.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Robert Blaskiewicz

Robert Blaskiewicz is Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking and First Year Studies at Stockton University, where he specializes in and teaches about World War II veterans’ writings, science and pseudoscience, paranormal claims, and conspiracy theories.


The Complexity of Alien Abduction and the Multidisciplinary Nature of Fringe Claims

Posted on Jun. 07, 2016 by | Comments (10)

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

Image by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith and Jason Loxton

In my last post I explained that the teeming menagerie of seemingly dissimilar fringe claims studied by skeptics are unified by the neglect of other scholars, by structural similarities, and (in some cases) by direct interconnection. For this reason, a range of topics can be usefully gathered under the skeptics’ umbrella, and useful insights drawn between them.

Today I’ll ask a related question: why are skeptics a mixed group of magicians, psychologists, doctors, historians, science popularizers, artists, and so on?

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


Fringe Claims: Unified by Neglect, Structural Similarity, and Direct Interconnection

Posted on Jun. 06, 2016 by | Comments (8)

A recent Scientific American blog post raised a very tedious and very old complaint about scientific skepticism—in essence, “Paranormal and pseudoscientific claims are trivial. Why don’t you do something I consider important?” The answer I expressed in my previous post is that fringe beliefs are a significant part of the fabric of human existence, and yes, sometimes important in their own right. Seeking to understand those beliefs is a worthwhile research endeavor.

This brought to mind a more interesting question: why does modern skepticism seek to study such a broad and seemingly heterogeneous group of topics—everything from UFOs to climate denialism to mermaids to quack cancer cures?

Philosopher Austin Dacey posed this latter question in a 2011 article after attending a skeptics conference in Las Vegas (The Amazing Meeting). Adopting “the eye of an anthropologist,” Dacey observed that “the remarkable thing was just how non-obvious, even peculiar is the selection of subjects that characterize contemporary organized skepticism.”1 Skeptics collect dozens, indeed hundreds of fringe topics under our research umbrella while choosing not to focus on other topics we consider unrelated—embracing “a kind of canon,” Dacey noted, that “can appear quite odd and contingent. What is it…that binds together ginkgo biloba and El Chupacabra, cold reading and cosmic fine tuning? Why this canon?”

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


Bigfoot Versus the Quest for World Peace?

Posted on May. 17, 2016 by | Comments (23)

For the entire history of scientific skepticism, folks in our weird and wonderful little field have heard two criticisms offered with metronomic regularity from people who are “skeptical of the skeptics.”1 One is the obvious: “Skeptics are closed-minded!” The other, no less predictable or routine, is my topic today: “Why do you bother with this trivial stuff about pseudoscience and the paranormal? Aren’t there more important things to worry about?”

Yesterday, science writer John Horgan offered the latest example of this second standard criticism in a Scientific American blog post titled “Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” (presented first as a speech last weekend at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, NECSS, in New York City). Positioning his piece as a critique (“I have to bash skepticism”) from an outsider perspective ( “I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics”), Horgan “decided to treat the skeptics skeptically.” He offered a prescription: skeptics should stop patting “each other on the back” and stop wasting our time on the “soft targets” of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims:

I’m asking you skeptics to spend less time bashing soft targets like homeopathy and Bigfoot and more time bashing hard targets like multiverses, cancer tests, psychiatric drugs and war, the hardest target of all.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


The Discovery of Richard III’s Grave and the Fallibility of Memory

Posted on Mar. 30, 2016 by | Comments (6)
Richard III's tomb at Leicester Cathedral. Photo by Isananni

Richard III’s tomb at Leicester Cathedral. Photo by Isananni

One year ago, Richard III, one of England’s most notorious kings, was reburied at Leicester Cathedral after a series of celebrations and ceremonies suitable for a national hero. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch even read a poem written by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Fortunately for him, the poem did not include the word “penguin” (also here). To commemorate the anniversary, the University of Leicester has released a 3D model of Richard’s skeleton in its original, too-short, poorly-dug grave.

Richard III, child-killer and national treasure

Richard III, child-killer and national treasure

Amid all the hoopla, it’s easy to forget that Richard III was not the People’s Princess, but rather a man who almost certainly ordered the murder of two children, both of whom were his nephews and one of whom was probably the rightful king of England. I’ve been interested in the way Richard’s image has been rather successfully rehabilitated through the publicity surrounding the discovery of his remains and their reburial. For the moment, though, I’m going to focus on one element of the story: the way the search for and discovery of the body has itself become mythologized, possibly with the help of a faulty memory.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Eve Siebert

Eve Siebert contributes to the Skepticality podcast and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. She taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Read Eve’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.


Vikings Exhibition at Discovery Times Square: Setting History Straight-ish

Posted on Feb. 16, 2016 by | Comments (8)

Entrance to Vikings Exhibit, Field Museum.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Vikings exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I had been invited to Chicago to give a Skeptics in the Pub talk about the erroneous and distinctly odd belief that Leif Erickson discovered Bigfoot in Vinland. I gave the talk on Saturday and went to the exhibit on Sunday. It was a whole Viking-themed weekend—the best kind of weekend. Bigfoot was noticeably absent from the exhibit (and, indeed, the Field Museum in general).

In the last year, I have moved from Wisconsin to New Jersey, and the Viking exhibit has moved from Chicago to New York. I’m tempted to visit it again. I enjoyed it the first time, although it made me a little sad because it reminded me that I was not able to visit the British Museum’s 2014 exhibit, Vikings: Life and Legends. The two exhibits take very different approaches to the Vikings. The British Museum emphasized warfare, stating in one of its press releases:

New interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Eve Siebert

Eve Siebert contributes to the Skepticality podcast and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. She taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Read Eve’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.


Taking a Shot at the Boot Hill Ghost

Posted on Jan. 21, 2016 by | Comments (6)

In the online world of allegedly paranormal photos, you will find one referred to as the Boot Hill Ghost. In this modern photo (taken in 1996) a man in the foreground stands in Tombstone Arizona’s famous Boot Hill Cemetery adorned in classic cowboy gear, wearing a cowboy hat, holding a 6-shooter. But it isn’t his steely eyes or checkered kerchief that make the black & white photo so popular on the Internet. Like many alleged ghost photos, the mysterious element was allegedly not seen when the photo was taken. In this case, the strangeness is the clear and obvious form of a man’s torso rising from the soil behind and to the right of the cowboy. The photographer was Ike Clanton (yes, a descendant of the OK Corral Clantons) and the proprietor of a “haunted saloon” in modern Tombstone.

Here is the photo (shared here for the purpose of critical review):

The boot hill ghost photo — hosted at ClantonGang.com

The boot hill ghost photo. See it in context at ClantonGang.com

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.


Good Grief, Skip! Murder, Mourning, or Anthropomorphism?

Posted on Jan. 17, 2016 by | Comments (14)
Skippy the bush kangaroo

Giving Skippy human like expressions and agency was more fantasy than fact.

If you’re over the age of thirty and grew up in Australia, there’s a good chance you know who Skippy is. This famous kangaroo—a friend ever true—was the Aussie equivalent of Lassie, forever helping her human companion, Sonny Hammond, get in and out of trouble.

With their upright stance and small hands, kangaroos are readily anthropomorphised. That is to say, it’s easy to attribute kangaroos with human-like traits. Just recently, a heart-breaking story of a kangaroo mourning a lost companion did the rounds through Australian social media. Photographer Evan Switzer chanced upon a dying female kangaroo being cradled in the forearms of a male, a small joey standing nearby.

“He would lift her up and she wouldn’t stand she’d just fall to the ground, he’d nudge her, stand besides her…it was a pretty special thing, he was just mourning the loss of his mate,” Evan was reported saying in the Daily Mail.

Only the kangaroo wasn’t mourning for its departed mate. It was…well, for a lack of a better term, turned on. Sexually. And might have even been the murderer.
CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.


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