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Subject: sci.skeptic FAQ: The Frequently Questioned Answers

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The Frequently Questioned Answers ================================= Introduction ============ This is the sci.skeptic FAQ. It is intended to provide a factual base for most of the commonly discussed topics on sci.skeptic. Unfortunately I don't have much time to do this in, and anyway a FAQ should be the Distilled Wisdom of the Net rather than just My Arrogant Opinion, so I invite submissions and let all the net experts out there fill in the details. Submissions from any point of view and on any sci.skeptic topic are welcomed, but please keep them short and to the point. The ideal submission is a short summary with one or two references to other literature. I have added comments in square brackets where I think more information is particularly needed, but don't let that stop you sending something else. If you are reading this with a newsreader and want to follow up on something, please copy the question to the subject line. This is more informative than a reference to the entire FAQ. This is in no way an "official" FAQ. I am a computer scientist by profession and deeply skeptical of paranormal claims (although I may include some pro-paranormal arguments here). If anyone else with a less skeptical point of view wants to start a FAQ list, please feel free. I certainly can't stop you. How to Get It ------------- This FAQ is posted once per month on the Usenet groups sci.skeptic and news.answers. Look for it around the 20th of the month. Many FAQs, including this one, are available on the archive site rtfm.mit.edu in the directory pub/usenet/news.answers. The name under which a FAQ is archived appears in the Archive-name line at the top of the article. This FAQ is archived as skeptic-faq. Various people have placed copies of this FAQ on their web servers, or on CD-ROMS or other places. These copies may not be up to date. Please check the date at the top of this document to see when it was last updated. Something gets changed most months. If you send a correction, please make sure you are referring to the latest version, or at least quote the version number in your message. I AM NOT A MAILSERVER. Requests to email the FAQ will be silently ignored. Suggestions and Updates ----------------------- I am always happy to accept corrections to this FAQ. In general it is not very useful to criticise areas of the FAQ as "not explaining it properly". If you want to see something changed then please write a submission which explains it better. Grammar and spelling corrections are always welcome though. If you send me information related to the FAQ, please say whether I can use your words in the next edition. I have to be careful about this, lest I be accused of publishing private email. Copyright --------- This document is Copyright 1993 Paul Johnson. Permission is granted to you the reader to copy this document onto any medium, including but not limited to paper, electronic storage systems, CD-ROM and microfilm. Seeking Information =================== Please send in contact addresses for local and national skeptics organisations not listed in section 0.11. I'm still looking for someone to tell me about gyroscopes and the angular momentum of the Earth. I'd like to start up a section of references to other on-line information, skeptical and otherwise. If you know of publicly accessible collections then please let me know. Does anyone have firm information about "Area 51", and what is supposed to be going on there? Credits ======= Thanks to all the people who have sent me submissions and comments. There isn't enough room to thank everyone individually, but some of the more major contributors are listed here: York H. Dobyns <ydobyns@phoenix.Princeton.EDU> provided carbon 14 dating information, notes about current psi researchers and other useful comments. Dendrochronology information came from <whheydt@pbhya.PacBell.com>. The questions "What are UFOs?" and "Are crop circles made by flying saucers?" were answered by Chris Rutkowski <rutkows@ccu.umanitoba.ca> Ken Shirriff <shirriff@sprite.Berkeley.EDU> provided information on perpetual motion machines, Leidenfrost reference and the AIDS section. Robert Sheaffer <sheaffer@netcom.com> sent information about Philip Klass and UFO abductions. The Ezekiel information comes from a posting by John Baskette <jfb@draco.macsch.com>. John Boyd <jboyd@ed.ac.uk> provided skeptical references on acupuncture. Eric Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com> contributed information on acupuncture, the origin of life, and the CIA AIDS theory. Kirlian photography information was paraphrased from an article by Dave Palmer <dpalmer@csulb.edu>. Cold reading information came from an article by Pope Charles <popec@brewich.hou.tx.us>. Todd Stark <tark@dwovax.ENET.dec.com> sent information on acupuncture analgesia, and provided section 10.1: "What is False Memory Syndrome". Geoff Lane <zzassgl@uts.manchester-computing-centre.ac.uk> provided the article and references on Tunguska. The skeptic organisation list came from Holger Stegemann <holger@esfra.sub.org>. Roger Nelson <rdnelson@phoenix.Princeton.edu> provided section 0.7: "Is there any scientific psi research?". Information and references on 250 million year old footprints comes from a posting by Darby South of Baton Rouge, LA. Contents ======== A `*' indicates a new or rewritten entry. A `+' indicates an altered entry. Background ---------- 0.1: What is sci.skeptic for? 0.2: What is sci.skeptic not for? 0.3: What is CSICOP? What's their address? 0.4: What is "Prometheus"? 0.5: Who are some prominent skeptics? 0.6: Aren't all skeptics just closed-minded bigots? 0.6.1: Why are skeptics so keen to rubbish fringe ideas? 0.6.2: How do we know Randi is honest? 0.6.3: Why don't skeptics challenge religions? 0.6.4: How can I persuade the other side? 0.7: Is there any scientific psi research? 0.8: What is a "conspiracy theory"? 0.9: What is "cold reading?" 0.10: Is there a list of logical fallacies? 0.11: What national and local skeptics organisations are there? 0.12: Where can I get books on paranormal phenomena? 0.13: Where can I find skeptical information on-line? 0.14: Where can I find paranormal information on-line? The Scientific Method --------------------- 1.1: What is the scientific method? 1.2: What is the difference between a fact, a theory and a hypothesis? 1.3: Can science ever really prove anything? 1.4: If scientific theories keep changing, where is the Truth? 1.5: "Extraordinary evidence is needed for an extraordinary claim." 1.6: What is Occam's Razor? 1.7: Galileo was persecuted, just like researchers into <X> today. 1.8: What is the "Experimenter effect". 1.9: How much fraud is there in science? 1.9.1: Did Mendel fudge his results? 1.10: Are scientists wearing blinkers? Psychic Powers -------------- 2.1: Is Uri Geller for real? + 2.2: I have had a psychic experience. 2.3: What is "sensory leakage"? 2.4: Who are the main psi researchers? 2.5: Does dowsing work? 2.6: Could psi be inhibited by the presence of skeptics? 2.7: Why don't the skeptics test the *real* psychics? 2.8: What is the ganzfeld? UFOs/Flying Saucers ------------------- 3.1 What are UFOs? 3.1.1: Are UFOs alien spacecraft? 3.1.2: Are UFOs natural phenomena? 3.1.3: But isn't it possible that aliens are visiting Earth? 3.2: Is it true that the US government has a crashed flying saucer? (MJ-12)? 3.3: What is "channeling"? 3.4: How can we test a channeller? + 3.5: I am in telepathic contact with the aliens. 3.6: Some bozo has just posted a load of "teachings" from a UFO. What should I do? 3.7: Are crop circles made by flying saucers? 3.7.1: Are crop circles made by "vortices"? 3.7.2: Are crop circles made by hoaxers? 3.7.3: Are crop circles radioactive? 3.7.4: What about cellular changes in plants within crop circles? 3.8: Have people been abducted by UFOs? 3.9: What is causing the strange cattle deaths? 3.10: What is the face on Mars? 3.11: Did Ezekiel See a Flying Saucer? 3.12: What happened at Tunguska? 3.13: How did the Dogon know about Sirius? Faith Healing and Alternative Therapies --------------------------------------- 4.1: Isn't western medicine reductionistic and alternatives holistic? 4.2: What is a double-blind trial? What is a placebo? 4.3: Why should scientific criteria apply to alternative therapies? 4.4: What is homeopathy? 4.5: What is aromatherapy? 4.6: What is reflexology? 4.7: Does acupuncture work? 4.8: What about psychic surgery? 4.9: What is Crystal Healing? 4.10: Does religious healing work? 4.11: What harm does it do anyway? Creation versus Evolution ------------------------- 5.1: Is the Bible evidence of anything? 5.2: Could the Universe have been created old? 5.3: What about Carbon-14 dating? 5.4: What is "dendrochronology"? 5.5: What is evolution? Where do I find out more? 5.6: "The second law of thermodynamics says...." 5.7: How could living organisms arise "by chance"? 5.8: But doesn't the human body seem to be well designed? 5.9: What about the thousands of scientists who have become Creationists? 5.10: Is the speed of light decreasing? 5.11: What about Velikovsky? 5.12: Are there human footprints from 250 million years ago? Fire-walking ----------- 6.1: Is fire-walking possible? 6.2: Can science explain fire-walking? New Age ------- 7.1: What do New Agers believe? 7.2: What is the Gaia hypothesis? 7.3: Was Nostradamus a prophet? 7.4: Does astrology work? 7.4.1: Could astrology work by gravity? 7.4.2: What is the `Mars Effect'? 7.4.3: But couldn't there be some undiscovered connection between people and planets? 7.5: What is Kirlian photography? Strange Machines: Free Energy and Anti-Gravity ---------------------------------------------- 8.1: Why don't electrical perpetul motion machines work? 8.2: Why don't magnetic perpetual motion machines work? 8.3: Why don't mechanical perpetual motion machines work? 8.4: Magnets can levitate. Where is the energy from? 8.5: But its been patented! 8.6: The oil companies are conspiring to suppress my invention! 8.7: My machine gets its free energy from <X> 8.8: Can gyroscopes neutralise gravity? 8.9: My prototype gets lighter when I turn it on. 8.10: Can magnets improve fuel efficiency or descale pipes? AIDS ---- 9.1: What about these theories on AIDS? 9.1.1: The Mainstream Theory 9.1.2: Strecker's CIA Theory 9.1.3: Duesberg's Risk-Group Theory 9.2: What About the Sailor with AIDS in 1959? You Must Remember This ---------------------- 10.1: What is "False Memory Syndrome"? 10.2: How Can I Contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation? ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Background ========== 0.1: What is sci.skeptic for? ----------------------------- Sci.skeptic is for those who are skeptical about claims of the paranormal to meet with those who believe in the paranormal. In this way the paranormalists can expose their ideas to scientific scrutiny, and if there is anything in these ideas then the skeptics might learn something. However this is a very wide area, and some of the topics covered might be better kept in their own newsgroups. In particular the evolution vs. creation debate is best kept in talk.origins. General New Age discussions belong in talk.religion.newage. Strange "Heard it on the grapevine" stories belong on alt.folklore.urban, which discusses such things as vanishing hitchhikers and the Everlasting Lightbulb conspiracy. Serious conspiracy theories should be kept on alt.conspiracy, and theories about the assassination of President Kennedy should be kept on alt.conspiracy.jfk. CROSS-POSTING from these groups is NOT APPRECIATED by the majority of sci.skeptic readers. The discussion of a topic in this FAQ is not an attempt to have the final word on the subject. It is simply intended to answer a few common questions and provide a basis for discussion of common topics. Conversely, the omission of a topic from this FAQ does not indicate that the topic is not suitable for sci.skeptic. It just means that it has not been discussed recently. If you want to start a thread on it then go ahead. 0.2: What is sci.skeptic not for? --------------------------------- The scope of sci.skeptic extends into any area where hard evidence can be obtained, but does not extend into speculation. So religious arguments about the existence of God are out of place here (take them to talk.atheism or talk.religion.*). On the other hand discussion about miracles is to be welcomed, since this is an issue where evidence can be obtained. Topics that have their own groups should be taken to the appropriate group. See the previous answer for a partial list. Also out of place are channelled messages from aliens. If your channelled message contains testable facts then post those. Otherwise we are simply not interested. Take it to alt.alien.visitors. The posting of large articles (>200 lines) is not a way to persuade people. See the section on "closed minded skeptics" below for some reasons for this. I suggest you summarise the article and offer to mail copies to anyone who is interested. Sci.skeptic is not an abuse group. There is a regrettable tendency for polite discussion here to degenerate into ad-hominem flames about who said what to whom and what they meant. PLEASE DO NOT FLAME. You won't convince anyone. Rather the opposite. 0.3: What is CSICOP? What's their address? ------------------------------------------- CSICOP stands for the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal". They publish a quarterly magazine called "The Skeptical Inquirer". Their address is: Skeptical Inquirer, Box 703, Buffalo, NY 14226-9973. Tel. 716-636-1425 voice, 716-636-1733 fax. Email: info@csicop.org (for information requests to CSICOP) letters@csicop.org (to send a letter to the editor of _Skeptical Inquirer_ magazine) Note that this is a new address. Europeans should contact: Mike Hutchinson, 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ Internet: Mike@hutch.demon.co.uk Compuserve: 100023.2355@CompuServe.com Telephone: +44 81 508 2989 CSICOP should not be confused with the Skeptics Society (2761 N. Marengo Ave. Altadena, CA 91001). They are separate organisations, although there is some overlap with CSICOP. The Skeptics Society publishes _Skeptic_ four times a year, and it's currently up to almost 100 pages/issue, full-size magazine format. Circulation is up to around 8000, and climbing rapidly. (It far outsells _Skeptical Inquirer_ on the newsstands, but has a much smaller base of subscribers.) 0.4: What is "Prometheus"? -------------------------- Prometheus Books is a publisher specialising in skeptical books. Their address is: Prometheus Books 59 John Glenn Drive, Buffalo, NY 14215-9918 Phone (800)-421-0351. Fax (716)-691-0137. URL: http://www/cs.man.ac.uk/aig/staff/toby/prometheus/index.html Mike Hutchinson is also the European agent for Prometheus. See 0.3 for contact details. 0.5: Who are some prominent skeptics? ------------------------------------- James "The Amazing" Randi is a professional stage magician who spends much time and money debunking paranormal claims. He used to offer a reward of $10,000 (briefly augmented to $100,000 by a TV company some years ago) to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under controlled conditions. Unfortunately he has had to exhaust that fund to pay legal expenses in the series of lawsuits that have been brought against him since 1988. Anyone who wants to contribute to his defense can do so via: The Randi Fund 3555 West Reno Street Suite L Las Vegas, NV 89118 U.S.A. Checks should be made payable to The Randi Fund. The lawsuit by Geller against Randi has now finished. Geller was ordered to pay costs of $150,000. However he has not yet done so, and Randi is still in debt for his legal costs. There is a mailing list for updates on the situation, which originates from the account <geller-hotline@ssr.com>. To subscribe, you should send mail to <geller-hotline-request@ssr.com>.] James Randi can also be reached directly at <76702.3507@compuserve.com>, and has a Web page at <http://www.best.com/~ragaisis/randi/randi.html>. Martin Gardner is an author, mathematician and amateur stage magician who has written several books dealing with paranormal phenomena, including "Science: Good, Bad and Bogus" and "Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science". Philip J. Klass retired after thirty-five years as a Senior Editor of "Aviation Week and Space Technology" magazine, specializing in avionics. He is a founding fellow of CSICOP, and was named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He has won numerous awards for his technical journalism. His principal books are: UFO Abductions, A Dangerous Game (Prometheus, 1988) UFOs, The Public Deceived (Prometheus, 1983) UFOs Explained (Random House, 1974) Susan Blackmore holds a Ph.D in parapsychology, but in the course of her Ph.D research she became increasingly disillusioned and is now highly skeptical of paranormal claims. Ray Hyman is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He is one of the major external, skeptical critics of parapsychology. In 1986, he and parapsychologist Charles Honorton engaged in a detailed exchange about Honorton's ganzfeld experiments and statistical analysis of his results which was published in the Journal of Parapsychology. A collection of Hyman's work may be found in his book The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research, 1989, Prometheus. This includes "Proper Criticism", an influential piece on how skeptics should engage in criticism, and "'Cold Reading': How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them." James Alcock is a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. He is the author of the books Parapsychology: Science or Magic?, 1981, Pergamon, and Science and Supernature: A Critical Appraisal of Parapsychology, 1990, Prometheus. Joe Nickell is a former private investigator, a magician, and an English instructor at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of numerous books on paranormal subjects, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, 1982, Prometheus. He specializes in investigating individual cases in great detail, but has recently done some more general work, critiquing crop circles, spontaneous human combustion, and psychic detectives. Isaac Asimov wrote a great deal on skeptical issues. He had a regular column in _Fantasy and Science Fiction_, and collections of essays from it have been published. Some of these essays are on assorted crackpottery, like UFO's, Velikovsky, creationism, and so forth. They have titles like "Worlds in Confusion" (Velikovsky), "Look Long upon a Monkey" (creationism), "Armies of the Night" (crackpottery in general), "The Rocketing Dutchmen" (UFO's), and so forth.; these are usually on a rather general sort of level. Marcello Truzzi was one of the founders of CSICOP, but broke away from the organisation when it became too "dry" for him (see section 0.6.1 on wet vs. dry skeptics). He now publishes the "Zetetic Scholar" on an occasional basis. He can be contacted at the Dept. of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197, or at P.O. Box 1052, Ann Arbor, MI 48106. [Does anyone know if this address is still good? PAJ] 0.6: Aren't all skeptics just closed-minded bigots? --------------------------------------------------- People who have failed to convince skeptics often say "Well all skeptics are just closed-minded bigots who won't listen to me!". This is not true. Skeptics pay close attention to the evidence. If you have no evidence then you will get nowhere. Unfortunately life is short. Most of us have better things to do than investigate yet another bogus claim. Some paranormal topics, especially psi research and UFOlogy, produce vast quantities of low grade evidence. In the past people have investigated such evidence carefully, but it always seems to evaporate when anyone looks at it closely. Hence skeptics should be forgiven for not bothering to investigate yet another piece of low grade evidence before rejecting it. Isaac Asimov has suggested a triage process which divides scientific claims into three groups: mundane, unusual and bullshit [my terms]. As an example, a claim that "I have 10kg of salt in my lab" is pretty mundane. No-one would disbelieve me, but they wouldn't be very interested. A claim that "I have 10kg of gold in my lab" would probably result in mild disbelief and requests to have a look. Finally a claim that "I have 10kg of Einsteinium in my lab" would be greeted with cries of "Bullshit!". Of course there are some who substitute flaming and rhetoric for logical argument. We all lose our temper sometimes. 0.6.1: Why are skeptics so keen to rubbish fringe ideas? -------------------------------------------------------- Skeptics vary on the attitude they take towards a new fringe idea, varying from the "wet" to the "dry". The question of which attitude is better is very much a live issue in the skeptical community. Here is a brief summary of the two extremes: DRY: There is no reason to treat these people seriously. Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that their ideas are completely bogus. Time spent trying to "understand their ideas" and "examine their evidence" beyond that necessary for debunking is wasted time, and life is short. Furthermore, such behaviour lends them respectability. If we take them seriously, so will other people. We must ridicule their ideas so that others will see how silly they are. "One belly laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" (H.L. Mencken, quoted by Martin Gardner). WET: If we lay into these people without giving them a fair hearing then we run two risks: 1: We might miss someone who is actually right. History contains many examples. 2: We give them a weapon against us. Ad-hominem attacks and sloppy logic bring us down to their level. If we are truly the rational, scientific people we claim to be then we should ask for their evidence, and then pronounce our considered opinion of it. The two extremes are perhaps personified by Martin Gardner (dry) and Marcello Truzzi (wet). Note that no particular judgement is attached to these terms. They are just handy labels. People who read articles by dry skeptics often get the impression that skeptics are as pig-headed as any fundamentalist or stage psychic. I think that this is a valid criticism of some skeptics on the dry end. However, an article which ridicules fringe beliefs may also contain sound logic based on careful investigation. As always, you have to read carefully, distinguish logic from rhetoric, and then make a judgement. 0.6.2: How do we know Randi is honest? -------------------------------------- Randi has offered a large prize to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under controlled conditions. He also has a lot of professional prestige tied up in his self-appointed role of psychic debunker. This leads to allegations that if he ever did find a genuine psychic then he would lie rather than lose so much money and prestige. When Randi tests psychic claims, he is always very careful to agree with the claimant before the test exactly what the conditions will be. The test will proceed only if both he and the claimant agree that this will be a fair test of the claim. The conditions usually involve video tapes and independent witnesses specifically to rule out cheating by either side. On one occasion Randi did agree that the claimed ability existed. Arthur G. Lintgen claimed an ability to identify LP records without labels. Randi tested him on behalf of Time magazine, and found that Lintgen could in fact do this by reading the patterns of loud and quiet in the groove. Lintgen did not get Randi's reward because he had not demonstrated (or claimed) any paranormal ability. 0.6.3: Why don't skeptics debunk religions? ------------------------------------------- Skeptics aim to debunk false claims and silly theories by using the *evidence*. The question of whether God exists is not one for which evidence is available, and so skeptics tend to treat it as a private matter. When someone claims to have evidence (such as a miraculous healing) then skeptics are as ready to test this claim as they are any other. Most skeptics agree that it is perfectly possible to be a skeptic about paranormal claims but still honestly believe in God. Martin Gardner is a "dry" skeptic and one of the founders of CSICOP. He also believes in a personal god and describes himself as a "philosophical theist". Most skeptics tend to take an "agnostic-atheist" attitude, assuming that God does not exist until evidence to the contrary turns up. If you are interested in organisations that oppose religion in general then see the talk.atheism FAQ "Atheist Resources" for a list of atheist and humanist organisations. 0.6.4: How can I persuade the other side? ----------------------------------------- This isn't a FAQ, but it should be! Originally this question referred only to persuading skeptics, but of course the paranormalists are not the only ones who need to learn how to argue. * Be prepared to offer evidence. Ideally evidence consists of an experiment I can reasonably do myself. Failing that, list articles in peer-reviewed journals. * Make predictions. These predictions should be specific and surprising. For example a prediction that "crime will cause concern" is not specific (it does not say who is going to be concerned about what aspect of crime when) and it is not surprising (someone, somewhere is going to be concerned about it). On the other hand a prediction that "The British House of Commons will hold an Emergency Debate on Juvenile Crime next month" is both specific (it specifies an event which either will or will not happen) and surprising (emergency debates on this subject don't happen every month). * Be prepared to look at the evidence presented by the other side. On the other hand, if you claim as your evidence a paper that came out in some obscure journal in 1903, don't be too surprised if no-one goes to the expense of digging it out just to debunk it for you. * Don't try argument by assertion. A statement such as "The evidence for psi is overwhelming" will generate lots of queries asking where this evidence may be found. Conversely the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" line should only be used when someone tries to shift the burden of proof. * Don't try argument by authority unless the authority you are citing is generally acknowledged as an expert on the subject. I might cite C.S. Lewis in a debate on the nature of Christianity. I would not cite him on the age of the Universe because he is not an authority on that. For more on how to construct a logical argument, see the talk.origins and talk.atheism FAQs, both of which have extensive sections on this subject. 0.7: Is there any scientific psi research? ------------------------------------------ [Contributed by Roger Nelson of PEAR] In short, yes. According to a recent National Research Council report, there is a 130 year history of scientific research, albeit with no clear conclusion that the classical psi effects, telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, have been demonstrated. Most knowledgeable scholars would date the advent of controlled research later, to the early 1930's when J. B. Rhine began his work with McDougall in Duke University's psychology department. Rhine's work has been much criticized, and is widely discounted, but inappropriately for the most part. In any case, later workers built on these foundations of experimental design and statistical analysis, and there has been a cumulative increase in scientific rigor and sophistication. Most of current psi research is conducted by a small number of investigators in universities and established institutes, and reports are presented at conventions of professional organizations such as the Parapsychological Association, and the Society for Scientific Exploration, and published in professional journals of these groups or, occasionally, in mainstream journals in physics, psychology, and statistics. Professionals familiar with the literature, including recent meta-analyses, find persuasive evidence for small, replicable anomalous effects correlated with human consciousness and intention. There are currently perhaps a dozen active research laboratories, worldwide, and on the order of 50 to 100 researchers actually doing experiments. It is a fact that their work is not well known to the general public including most of the sci.skeptic readership. Thus, the frequently negative, and sometimes disdainful commentary on psi research from "skeptics" tends to be ill-informed, or refers to something other than scientific research. Language usage is part of the problem, as the terms psychic research, parapsychology, esp, telepathy, etc., have been usurped by non-scientists and media people. With suitable modifiers, the term anomalous is often used to describe the subject of investigation in modern research, partly to avoid the implied mechanisms and relationships attached to the older terms. Much of current experimental psi research is not only scientific, but adheres to more rigorous standards than are found in much contemporary work in the social and physical sciences, largely because the investigators understand the technical difficulties as well as the implications of positive findings for our general scientific models. It should be noted that constructive criticism from skeptics has made important contributions to research quality. 0.8: What is a Conspiracy Theory? --------------------------------- There are two general categories of conspiracy theory: Grand and Petty. A Grand conspiracy theory is a belief that there is a large-scale conspiracy by those in power to mislead and/or control the rest of the world. Consider the following example: There is a conspiracy amongst the computer programmers to control the world. They are only allowing the public to have simple machines, while they control the really powerful ones. There is a computer in <city> they call "The Beast". It has records about everyone. They use this information to manipulate the politicians and businessmen who ostensibly rule the world into doing their will. The Beast was prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Grand conspiracy theories divide the world into three groups. The Conspirators, the Investigators, and the Dupes. Conspirators have a vast secret. The Investigators have revealed parts of the conspiracy, but much is still secret. Investigators are always in great danger of being silenced by Conspirators. Dupes are just the rest of us. Often the Conspirators show a mixture of incredible subtlety and stunning stupidity. Evidence produced by the Investigators is always either circumstantial or evaporates when looked at carefully. The theories can never be disproved, since any evidence to the contrary can be dismissed as having been planted by the Conspirators. If you spend any time or effort digging into the evidence produced by Investigators then you will be labelled a Conspirator yourself. Of course, nothing a Conspirator says can be believed. Petty conspiracy theories are smaller than the Grand variety, and sometimes turn out to be true. Watergate and "Arms for Hostages" episodes both started life as Petty conspiracy theories. Just because a theory involves a conspiracy does not make that theory false. The main difference between Grand and Petty Conspiracy Theories is the number of alleged conspirators. Grand Conspiracy Theories require thousands or even millions. People sometimes use the word "conspiracy" about their opponents without really thinking about what they are suggesting. If you find yourself tempted to refer to the "X conspiracy" where X is merely a group of people who disagree with you, then pick another word. Otherwise you will be asked for evidence that this conspiracy actually exists. [Since this FAQ was first posted I have heard that the Beast computer is in Holland and that you can be saved by converting to a particular cult. In addition the cult claims that every product bar code includes three 6 digits as frame markers, hence 666, the number of the beast. In fact this is not true, and even if it were it would not fulfill the prophecy in Revelation. Meanwhile the cult members were *meant* to rise up to heaven on 29/10/92 but very embarrassingly didn't. The Korean founder was also discovered to have bought millions of $ worth of stocks and bonds which didn't mature until 1995, and was convicted of fraud.] 0.9: What is "cold reading"? ---------------------------- [From a posting by Pope Charles <popec@brewich.hou.tx.us>] Cold reading is the technique of saying little general things and watching a persons reactions. As one goes from very general to more specific things, one notes the reaction and uses it as a guide to find out what to say. Also there are stock phrases that sound like statements but are really questions. If these subtle questions evoke answers, these answers are used as a basis for the next round of statements. Many people get involved in various things like this because of their interest in the usual things, health, love, sex, etc. One can develop a set of stock questions and statements that will elicit positive responses from 90% of your 'clients'. In the hands of an expert, these simple techniques can be frightening almost. But they are simple things. Of course a paintbrush and a canvass are simple things too. It all depends on skill and talent for these things. One can learn these things coldbloodedly knowing them as the tricks they are, or as probably most use them, learned at the feet of other practitioners as it were by rote, and developed by practice and adapted to the tastes of the reader and his or her sitters. As skeptics have pointed out, it is the best cold readers that make the best Tarot Readers, Astrologers, Palm Readers, or what have you. If your library is lucky enough to have it, Check The Zetetic, (later renamed Skeptical Inquirer), Vol. 1, #2 Summer 1977 "Cold Reading: How to convince strangers you know all about them" by Ray Hyman. This was later republished in _The Elusive Quarry_, which should be quite a bit easier to find. These techniques are not confined to the occult world by any means. Religious workers, salesmen and the like use the principles to build rapport with people. 0.10: Is there a list of logical fallacies? ------------------------------------------- A complete list of formal and informal logical fallacies is posted by Mathew <mathew@mantis.com> as part of his excellent talk.atheism FAQ file series. This should be read carefully by anyone wishing to construct a logical argument to support their position on any group. For those who want more information, "The Book of the Fallacy" by Madsen Pirie covers the same ground in more detail. Formal and informal statistical fallacies are dealt with in the book "How To Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff. I strongly recommend this one. 0.11: What national and local skeptics organisations are there? --------------------------------------------------------------- The following addresses are not guaranteed correct. Please check the addresses you know, and send in any updates and corrections. Argentina: CAIRP, Director, Ladislao Enrique Maiquez, Jose Marti, 35 dep C, 1406 Buenos Aires. Email sebastian@sicoar1.satlink.net. Australia: Australian Skeptics Inc., P.O.Box E324, St. James NSW 2000, Australia Belgium: Committee Para, J. Dommanget, Observatoire Royal de Belgique, Avenue Circulaire 3, B-1180 Brussels SKEPP, W. Betz, Laarbeklaan 105, B-1090 Brussels Canada: James E. Alcock, Chairman, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Avenue, Toronto, Ontario Finland: Skepsis, Lauri Groehn (o Umlaut!), Ojahaapolku 8 B 17, SF-01600 Vantaa France: Comit'e Francais pour l'Etude des Ph'enom`enes Paranormaux, Dr. Claude Benski, General Secretary, Merlin Gerin, RGE/A2, F-38050 Grenoble Cedex Germany: Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften e.V. (GWUP) Postfach 1222 64374 Rossdorf Germany. Tel: +49-6154-8946, Fax: +49-6154-81912 Great Britain: British Committee, Michael J. Hutchinson, Secretary, 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ "The Skeptic", P.O. Box 475, Manchester, M60 2TH, UK. India: B. Premanand, Chairman, 10 Chettipalayam Road, Podanur, 641-023 Coimbatur, Tamil Nadu Ireland: Irish Skeptics, Peter O'Hara, Dept. of Psychiatry, Airedale General Hospital, Steeton, Keighly, West Yorkshire, UK BD20 6TD Italy: Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sul Paranormale (CICAP), Lorenzo Montali, Via Ozanam 3, I-20129 Milano Mexico: SOMIE, Mario Mendez-Acosta, Apartado Postal 19-546, Mexico 03900, D.F. New Zealand: Vicki Hyde, Chairperson, NZCSICOP, New Zealand Science Monthly, PO Box 19-760, Christchurch 5, New Zealand. Tel: (NZ)-3-384-5137, Fax: (NZ)-3-384-5138, email: nzsm@spis.equinox.gen.nz Netherlands: Stichting Skepsis, Rob Nanninga, Westerkade 20, NL-9718 AS Groningen Norway: K. Stenodegard, NIVFO, P.O.Box 2119, N-7001 Trondheim Skepsis, St Olavs gate 27 N-0166 OSLO (phone: + 47 22 20 35 33) Russia: Science & Religion, Ulyanovskaya 43, kor. 4, 109004 Moscow, Russia South Africa: Assn. for the Rational Investigation of the Paranormal (ARIP), Marian Laserson, Secretary, 4 Wales Street, Sandringham 2192 Spain: Alternativa Racional a las Pseudosciencias (ARP), Mercedes Quintana, Apartado de Correos 17.026, E-28080 Madrid Sweden: Vetenskap och folkbildning, Box 185, S-101 23 Stockholm, Sweden. USA: Skeptical Inquirer, Box 703, Buffalo, NY 14226-9973. Tel: 716-636-1425, Fax: 716-636-1733 Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, P.O. Box 1052, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Buffalo, NY 14215-9918 Skeptics Society 2761 N. Marengo Ave. Altadena, CA 91001 0.12: Where can I get books on paranormal phenomena? ---------------------------------------------------- Skeptics who want to obtain books on paranormal allegations are faced with a minor ethical dilemma, in that they want the books but do not want to hand money to the purveyors of flummery and nonsense. One solution is to buy the books second hand. In addition to your local second hand bookshop, Richard Trott <trott@gandalf.rutgers.edu> has volunteered to provide a free referral service for sellers and seekers of such second hand books. This service is now on the Web. Point your browser at: <http://www-usacs.rutgers.edu/~trott/books> A huge annotated bibliography of books on paranormal and skeptical issues is available by email or FTP. 1. Through mail: Send "get skeptic biblio" to LISTSERV@JHUVM.HCF.JHU.EDU or @JHUVM.BITNET. 2. Anonymous ftp: connect to "jhuvm.hcf.jhu.edu", log on with "skeptic" and use any non-blank password, do "get skeptic.biblio". 0.13: Where can I find skeptical information on-line? ----------------------------------------------------- Web pages: CSICOP and "Skeptical Inquirer": http://www.csicop.org/ James Randi: http://www.best.com/~ragaisis/randi/randi.html http://pc1502.geographie.uni-regensburg.de/html/randi.htm (German) General See the "Yahoo" Web directory at Stanford, under http://www.yahoo.com/Science/Alternative/ Mailing Lists: CSICOP: Barry Karr <aa538@freenet.buffalo.edu>. 0.14: Where can I find paranormal information on-line? ------------------------------------------------------ Web pages: General See the "Yahoo" Web directory at Stanford, under http://www.yahoo.com/Science/Alternative/ Mailing lists: Send a message to mailbase@mailbase.ac.uk with no subject line and the command join paranormal {Your name}. Send messages to paranormal@mailbase.ac.uk. The Scientific Method ===================== 1.1: What is the "scientific method"? ------------------------------------- The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing the truth from lies and delusion. The simple version looks something like this: 1: Observe some aspect of the universe. 2: Invent a theory that is consistent with what you have observed. 3: Use the theory to make predictions. 4: Test those predictions by experiments or further observations. 5: Modify the theory in the light of your results. 6: Go to step 3. This leaves out the co-operation between scientists in building theories, and the fact that it is impossible for every scientist to independently do every experiment to confirm every theory. Because life is short, scientists have to trust other scientists. So a scientist who claims to have done an experiment and obtained certain results will usually be believed, and most people will not bother to repeat the experiment. Experiments do get repeated as part of other experiments. Most scientific papers contain suggestions for other scientists to follow up. Usually the first step in doing this is to repeat the earlier work. So if a theory is the starting point for a significant amount of work then the initial experiments will get replicated a number of times. Some people talk about "Kuhnian paradigm shifts". This refers to the observed pattern of the slow extension of scientific knowledge with occasional sudden revolutions. This does happen, but it still follows the steps above. Many philosophers of science would argue that there is no such thing as *the* scientific method. 1.2: What is the difference between a fact, a theory and a hypothesis? ---------------------------------------------------------------------- In popular usage, a theory is just a vague and fuzzy sort of fact. But to a scientist a theory is a conceptual framework that *explains* existing facts and predicts new ones. For instance, today I saw the Sun rise. This is a fact. This fact is explained by the theory that the Earth is round and spins on its axis while orbiting the sun. This theory also explains other facts, such as the seasons and the phases of the moon, and allows me to make predictions about what will happen tomorrow. This means that in some ways the words "fact" and "theory" are interchangeable. The organisation of the solar system, which I used as a simple example of a theory, is normally considered to be a fact that is explained by Newton's theory of gravity. And so on. A hypothesis is a tentative theory that has not yet been tested. Typically, a scientist devises a hypothesis and then sees if it "holds water" by testing it against available data. If the hypothesis does hold water, the scientist declares it to be a theory. An important characteristic of a scientific theory or hypotheis is that it be "falsifiable". This means that there must be some experiment or possible discovery that could prove the theory untrue. For example, Einstein's theory of Relativity made predictions about the results of experiments. These experiments could have produced results that contradicted Einstein, so the theory was (and still is) falsifiable. On the other hand the theory that "there is an invisible snorg reading this over your shoulder" is not falsifiable. There is no experiment or possible evidence that could prove that invisible snorgs do not exist. So the Snorg Hypothesis is not scientific. On the other hand, the "Negative Snorg Hypothesis" (that they do not exist) is scientific. You can disprove it by catching one. Similar arguments apply to yetis, UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster. See also question 5.2 on the age of the Universe. 1.3: Can science ever really prove anything? -------------------------------------------- Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by "prove". For instance, there is little doubt that an object thrown into the air will come back down (ignoring spacecraft for the moment). One could make a scientific observation that "Things fall down". I am about to throw a stone into the air. I use my observation of past events to predict that the stone will come back down. Wow - it did! But next time I throw a stone, it might not come down. It might hover, or go shooting off upwards. So not even this simple fact has been really proved. But you would have to be very perverse to claim that the next thrown stone will not come back down. So for ordinary everyday use, we can say that the theory is true. You can think of facts and theories (not just scientific ones, but ordinary everyday ones) as being on a scale of certainty, from certainly false to certainly true. Up at the top end we have facts like "things fall down". Down at the bottom we have "the Earth is flat". In the middle we have "I will die of heart disease". Some scientific theories are nearer the top than others, but none of them ever actually reach it. Skepticism is usually directed at claims that contradict facts and theories that are very near the top of the scale. If you want to discuss ideas nearer the middle of the scale (that is, things about which there is real debate in the scientific community) then you would be better off asking on the appropriate specialist group. 1.4: If scientific theories keep changing, where is the Truth? -------------------------------------------------------------- In 1686 Isaac Newton proposed his theory of gravitation. This was one of the greatest intellectual feats of all time. The theory explained all the observed facts, and made predictions that were later tested and found to be correct within the accuracy of the instruments being used. As far as anyone could see, Newton's theory was the Truth. During the nineteenth century, more accurate instruments were used to test Newton's theory, and found some slight discrepancies (for instance, the orbit of Mercury wasn't quite right). Albert Einstein proposed his theories of Relativity, which explained the newly observed facts and made more predictions. Those predictions have now been tested and found to be correct within the accuracy of the instruments being used. As far as anyone can see, Einstein's theory is the Truth. So how can the Truth change? Well the answer is that it hasn't. The Universe is still the same as it ever was, and Newton's theory is as true as it ever was. If you take a course in physics today, you will be taught Newton's Laws. They can be used to make predictions, and those predictions are still correct. Only if you are dealing with things that move close to the speed of light do you need to use Einstein's theories. If you are working at ordinary speeds outside of very strong gravitational fields and use Einstein, you will get (almost) exactly the same answer as you would with Newton. It just takes longer because using Einstein involves rather more maths. One other note about truth: science does not make moral judgements. Anyone who tries to draw moral lessons from the laws of nature is on very dangerous ground. Evolution in particular seems to suffer from this. At one time or another it seems to have been used to justify Nazism, Communism, and every other -ism in between. These justifications are all completely bogus. Similarly, anyone who says "evolution theory is evil because it is used to support Communism" (or any other -ism) has also strayed from the path of Logic. 1.5: "Extraordinary evidence is needed for an extraordinary claim" ------------------------------------------------------------------ An extraordinary claim is one that contradicts a fact that is close to the top of the certainty scale discussed above. So if you are trying to contradict such a fact, you had better have facts available that are even higher up the certainty scale. 1.6: What is Occam's Razor? --------------------------- Ockham's Razor ("Occam" is a Latinised variant) is the principle proposed by William of Ockham in the fifteenth century that "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate", which translates as "entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily". Various other rephrasings have been incorrectly attributed to him. In more modern terms, if you have two theories which both explain the observed facts then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along. See W.M. Thorburn, "The Myth of Occam's Razor," _Mind_ 27:345-353 (1918) for a detailed study of what Ockham actually wrote and what others wrote after him. The reason behind the razor is that for any given set of facts there are an infinite number of theories that could explain them. For instance, if you have a graph with four points in a line then the simplest theory that explains them is a linear relationship, but you can draw an infinite number of different curves that all pass through the four points. There is no evidence that the straight line is the right one, but it is the simplest possible solution. So you might as well use it until someone comes along with a point off the straight line. Also, if you have a few thousand points on the line and someone suggests that there is a point that is off the line, it's a pretty fair bet that they are wrong. The following argument against Occam's Razor is sometime proposed: This simple hypothesis was shown to be false; the truth was more complicated. So Occam's Razor doesn't work. This is a strawman argument. The Razor doesn't tell us anything about the truth or otherwise of a hypothesis, but rather it tells us which one to test first. The simpler the hypothesis, the easier it is to shoot down. A related rule, which can be used to slice open conspiracy theories, is Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity". This definition comes from "The Jargon File" (edited by Eric Raymond), but one poster attributes it to Robert Heinlein, in a 1941 story called "Logic of Empire". 1.7: Galileo was persecuted, just like researchers into <X> today. ------------------------------------------------------------------ People putting forward extraordinary claims often refer to Galileo as an example of a great genius being persecuted by the establishment for heretical theories. They claim that the scientific establishment is afraid of being proved wrong, and hence is trying to suppress the truth. This is a classic conspiracy theory. The Conspirators are all those scientists who have bothered to point out flaws in the claims put forward by the researchers. The usual rejoinder to someone who says "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Galileo" is to say "But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown". (From Carl Sagan, "Broca's Brain", Coronet 1980, p79). Incidentally, stories about the persecution of Galileo Galilei and the ridicule Christopher Columbus had to endure should be taken with a grain of salt. During the early days of Galileo's theory church officials were interested and sometimes supportive, even though they had yet to find a way to incorporate it into theology. His main adversaries were established scientists - since he was unable to provide HARD proofs they didn't accept his model. Galileo became more agitated, declared them ignorant fools and publicly stated that his model was the correct one, thus coming in conflict with the church. When Columbus proposed to take the "Western Route" the spherical nature of the Earth was common knowledge, even though the diameter was still debatable. Columbus simply believed that the Earth was a lot smaller, while his adversaries claimed that the Western Route would be too long. If America hadn't been in his way, he most likely would have failed. The myth that "he was laughed at for believing that the Earth was a globe" stems from an American author who intentionally adulterated history. 1.8: What is the "Experimenter effect"? --------------------------------------- It is unconscious bias introduced into an experiment by the experimenter. It can occur in one of two ways: o Scientists doing experiments often have to look for small effects or differences between the things being experimented on. o Experiments require many samples to be treated in exactly the same way in order to get consistent results. Note that neither of these sources of bias require deliberate fraud. A classic example of the first kind of bias was the "N-ray", discovered early this century. Detecting them required the investigator to look for very faint flashes of light on a scintillator. Many scientists reported detecting these rays. They were fooling themselves. For more details, see "The Mutations of Science" in "Science since Babylon" by Derek Price (Yale Univ. Press). A classic example of the second kind of bias were the detailed investigations into the relationship between race and brain capacity in the last century. Skull capacity was measured by filling the empty skull with lead shot or mustard seed, and then measuring the volume of filling. A significant difference in the results could be obtained by ensuring that the filling in some skulls was better settled than others. For more details on this story, read Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man". For more detail see: T.X. Barber, "Pitfalls of Human Research", 1976. Robert Rosenthal, "Pygmalion in the Classroom". [These were recommended by a correspondent. Sorry I have no more information.] 1.9: How much fraud is there in science? ---------------------------------------- In its simplest form this question is unanswerable, since undetected fraud is by definition unmeasurable. Of course there are many known cases of fraud in science. Some use this to argue that all scientific findings (especially those they dislike) are worthless. This ignores the replication of results which is routinely undertaken by scientists. Any important result will be replicated many times by many different people. So an assertion that (for instance) scientists are lying about carbon-14 dating requires that a great many scientists are engaging in a conspiracy. See the previous question. In fact the existence of known and documented fraud is a good illustration of the self-correcting nature of science. It does not matter if a proportion of scientists are fraudsters because any important work they do will not be taken seriously without independent verification. Hence they must confine themselves to pedestrian work which no-one is much interested in, and obtain only the expected results. For anyone with the talent and ambition necessary to get a Ph.D this is not going to be an enjoyable career. Also, most scientists are idealists. They perceive beauty in scientific truth and see its discovery as their vocation. Without this most would have gone into something more lucrative. These arguments suggest that undetected fraud in science is both rare and unimportant. The above arguments are weaker in medical research, where companies frequently suppress or distort data in order to support their own products. Tobacco companies regularly produce reports "proving" that smoking is harmless, and drug companies have both faked and suppressed data related to the safety or effectiveness or major products. For more detail on more scientific frauds than you ever knew existed, see "False Prophets" by Alexander Koln. The standard textbook used in North America is "Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in Science" by William Broad and Nicholas Wade (Oxford 1982). There is a mailing list SCIFRAUD for the discussion of fraud and questionable behaviour in science. To subscribe, send "sub scifraud <Your Name>" to "listserv@uacsc2.albany.edu". 1.9.1: Did Mendel fudge his results? ------------------------------------ Gregor Mendel was a 19th Century monk who discovered the laws of inheritance (dominant and recessive genes etc.). More recent analysis of his results suggest that they are "too good to be true". Mendelian inheritance involves the random selection of possible traits from parents, with particular probabilities of particular traits. It seems from Mendel's raw data that chance played a smaller part in his experiments than it should. This does not imply fraud on the part of Mendel. First, the experiments were not "blind" (see the questions about double blind experiments and the experimenter effect). Deciding whether a particular pea is wrinkled or not needs judgement, and this could bias Mendel's results towards the expected. This is an example of the "experimenter effect". Second, Mendel's Laws are only approximations. In fact it does turn out that in some cases inheritance is less random than his Laws state. Third, Mendel might have neglected to publish the results of `failed' experiments. It is interesting to note that all 7 of the characteristics measured in his published work are controlled by single genes. He did not report any experiments with more complicated characteristics. Mendel later started experiments with a more complex plant, hawkweed, could not interpret the results, got discouraged and abandoned plant science. See "The Human Blueprint" by Robert Shapiro (New York: St. Martin's, 1991) p. 17. 1.10: Are scientists wearing blinkers? -------------------------------------- One of the commonest allegations against mainstream science is that its practitioners only see what they expect to see. Scientists often refuse to test fringe ideas because "science" tells them that this will be a waste of time and effort. Hence they miss ideas which could be very valuable. This is the "blinkers" argument, by analogy with the leather shields placed over horses eyes so that they only see the road ahead. It is often put forward by proponents of new-age beliefs and alternative health. It is certainly true that ideas from outside the mainstream of science can have a hard time getting established. But on the other hand the opportunity to create a scientific revolution is a very tempting one: wealth, fame and Nobel prizes tend to follow from such work. So there will always be one or two scientists who are willing to look at anything new. If you have such an idea, remember that the burden of proof is on you. Posting an explanation of your idea to sci.skeptic is a good start. Many readers of this group are professional scientists. They will be willing to provide constructive criticism and pointers to relevant literature (along with the occasional rasberry). Listen to them. Then go away, read the articles, improve your theory in the light of your new knowledge, and then ask again. Starting a scientific revolution is a long, hard slog. Don't expect it to be easy. If it was, we would have them every week. Psychic Powers ============== 2.1: Is Uri Geller for real? ---------------------------- James "The Amazing" Randi has, through various demonstrations, cast doubt on Geller's claims of psychic powers. Geller has sued Randi. This case has now been completed, and Geller has lost. However Skeptics are still advised to exercise extreme caution in addressing this topic, given Geller's history of litigation. One of Geller's more (in)famous claims is that he has made millions by finding oil. The following was posted by James Randi on this subject: : Geller SAYS that he has made fortunes with mining companies. When : CSICOP checked this out, it was found that only one mining company, : ZANEX, ever paid Geller, and that was far far less than the million : dollars he says he got from 11 mining companies. Dont always : believe everything that he claims, or didn't you learn that already? Geller's stage appearances feature a range of stage magic. For more details on how he does his tricks, read books by James Randi, especially "The Truth About Uri Geller". Here are some hilights: * "Broken" watches are often just gummed up. Warm it, shake it, and it will start ticking. Whether it carries on ticking or keeps good time is another matter. * Spoon bending is usually done by misdirection. Get everyone to look away while you bend the spoon. Geller has even been known to hold up a bent spoon and say "its bending, its bending" while gradually revealing more of the bend between his fingers. In a global agreement to the law suits involving James Randi, CSICOP, Prometheus Books, Victor Stenger, Prometheus Books UK and Eddington Hook Ltd. Uri Geller agreed to pay CSICOP $120,000. (He had already paid Prometheus Books around $20,000 in legal fees for a case in Florida.) In 'The Skeptical Inquirer' for May/June 1995 it was reported that Uri Geller had paid the first $40,000 of the $120,000. He will pay $10,000 a year for three years plus the first $50,000 of any sums recovered by him in a new action he was to bring against his former attorneys. CSICOP settled for less than the $150,000 awarded to them by the court. Executive Director Barry Karr said: "Prior to filing suit, Geller, an Israeli citizen living in England, placed his assets in trust, rendering uncertain our ability to collect." 2.2: I have had a psychic experience. ------------------------------------- That is pretty remarkable. But before you post to the Net, consider:- * Could it just be coincidence? The human mind is good at remembering odd things but tends to forget ordinary things, such as premonitions that didn't happen. If psychic experiences happen to you on a regular basis then try writing down the premonitions when you have them and then comparing your record to later events. * If you think you have a mental link with someone you know, try a few tests with playing cards. Until 1996, I had suggested the following: * If you are receiving messages from elsewhere (e.g. UFOs), ask for specific information that you can then check. Previous versions of this FAQ suggested the complete prime factorisation of 2^1024+1. However this has now been found. However we now know the factors of this number. If you want to make a formal registration of your predictions, send mail to <prediction_registry@sol1.gps.caltech.edu>. There is a book by Prof Robert Morris and Dr Richard Wiseman called "Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants". University of Hertfordshire Press, 1995, pp 72, stlg7 pbk 2.3: What is "Sensory Leakage"? ------------------------------- Sensory leakage is something that designers of tests for psi must be careful to guard against. Tests for psi use powerful statistical tests to search for faint traces of communication. Unfortunately the fact that communication has taken place does not prove that it was done by telepathy. It could have been through some more mundane form of signal. For instance one experiment involved a "sender" in one room with a stack of numbered cards (1-10) and a "receiver" in another room trying to guess what the next card was. The sender looked at a card and pressed a button to signal to the receiver. The receiver then tried to guess the number on the card. There was a definite correlation between the card numbers and the guesses. However the sender could signal the receiver by varying the delays between buzzes. When this channel of communication was removed, the effect disappeared. 2.4: Who are the main psi researchers? -------------------------------------- Targ and Puthoff spring to mind, but actually, Puthoff is no longer doing psi research (I don't have any idea what Targ is up to these days.) Granted, their SRI work is quite famous, but if we want to review the historical (rather than currently active) figures, you probably want to go back at least as far as the Rhines. Helmut Schmidt, a physicist who has been looking at PK, is still active at the Mind Science Foundation in Texas. (Sorry, I don't know a more specific address than that.) The Foundation for Research into the Nature of Man (FRNM), which is what Rhine's work at Duke eventually developed into, is still active near Duke. It is currently headed by K. Ramakrishna Rao. The Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh is still active. The current incumbent is named Robert Morris; his main assistant is Deborah Delanoy. He and Dr Richard Wiseman have written a small book "Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants". [Does anyone have publisher details?] Roger Nelson is active in the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research center (PEAR) and occasionally posts to the net. Active workers in the field that I can think of currently include Dean Radin, who also posts to sci.skeptic as <dir2@gte.com>, Jessica Utts, and Ed May. The Parapsychological Association has a much larger roster than that, of course, but I'm not a member myself and don't have access to their membership roll. 2.5: Does dowsing work? ----------------------- Dowsing is the art of finding underground water by extra-sensory perception. Sometimes tools are used. The traditional one is a forked hazel stick. When held in the correct way this will twitch in response to small muscle movements in the back and shoulders. Another tool that has become popular in recent years is a pair of rods mounted in tubes that are held in each hand just in front of the user. Rod bent into tube. | V r------------------------------- || ^ || | || <- Tube Rod || || || When water (or something else) is dowsed, the rods turn towards each other. Like the forked hazel stick it amplifies small movements of the arm and shoulder muscles. Unfortunately careful tests of dowsers have revealed absolutely no ability to find water or anything else by extra-sensory perception. Dowsing success stories can be explained by noting that wherever you dig you will find water. You just have to dig deep enough. It has also been suggested that dowsers may unconsciously use clues in the environment. James Randi has tested more than 100 dowsers (I don't know the actual count). He tells that only 2 tried to cheat. This suggests that dowsers are basically honest people. The Skeptical Inquirer has published a number of articles on dowsing. James Randi's "A Controlled Test of Dowsing" was in vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 16-20. Michael Martin's "A New Controlled Dowsing Experiment" was in vol. 8, pp. 138-140. Dick Smith's "Two Tests of Divining in Australia" was in vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 34-37. Randi's book Flim-Flam! has a section on dowsing. The main skeptical book about dowsing is Vogt, E.Z. and Hyman R. (1959, 2nd edition 1979) "Water witching USA". The University of Chicago Press. 260 pages. Available as a paperback. 2.6: Could psi be inhibited by the presence of skeptics? -------------------------------------------------------- Psychic researchers have noted something they call the "shyness effect" (or more grandly "psi-mediated experimenter effects"). This is invoked to explain the way in which many subjects' psychic powers seem to fade when exposed to careful scrutiny and proper controls. Often it is alleged that having a skeptic in the audience can prevent the delicate operation of psi. In its most extreme form this hypothesis becomes a "catch-22" that makes any results consistent with a psi hypothesis. This renders the hypothesis unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific. Less extreme forms might be testable. 2.7: Why don't the skeptics test the *real* psychics? ----------------------------------------------------- A claim is sometimes made that the Skeptics movement only tests those psychics which it knows to be frauds. The real psychics are supposedly being ignored by skeptics who are afraid to be proved wrong. There are three problems with this claim. Firstly, it assumes that all the skeptics are engaged in a conspiracy to persuade the world that psychic powers do not exist. This is only a Petty Conspiracy theory (see section 0), since it only requires the involvement of a few dozen of the most prominent skeptics, but it is still difficult to see any motive for such a deception. "Fear of being proved wrong" implies that they already know they are wrong, which makes their continued activity rather puzzling. Secondly, most skeptics are always ready to take part in any reasonable test. The "real" psychics are perfectly at liberty to challenge the skeptics. Thirdly, there are always more alleged psychics. Hence this argument presents the skeptics with an ever-receding target. The dialogue goes something like this: Paranormalist: Yes, I concede that Mr. Adams is a fake, but what about Mr. Brown. The things that he does could never be faked. [Some months later] Skeptic: Here is how Brown did it.... P: OK, I concede that Adams and Brown are fakes, but Mrs Carver is the surely the real thing. [Some months later] S: Here is how Carver did it... P: OK, maybe Adams, Brown and Carver were fakes, but what about Digby and Ender? S: I give up. There's no convincing some people. P: [shouting] Digby and Ender are real psychics: the skeptics are afraid to test them. They only test the fakes! 2.8: What is the ganzfeld? -------------------------- A state of sensory deprivation which may enhance psychic abilities. The subject lies on a soft bed, with a "white noise" hissing sound played through headphones and half of a ping-pong ball placed over each eye to give an empty field of view. The subject then talks to a tape recorder, describing any ideas which enter his or her mind. To test whether psychic communication is occurring, a "sender" concentrates on some image while the "receiver" is in the ganzfeld. Then the image is shown to the receiver along with three other images. The receiver must pick the image that was seen by the sender. Dean Radin <dradin@festival.ed.ac.uk> has been conducting some careful ganzfeld experiments, which he describes as follows: > ... our unit has recently conducted pilot replications of the > ganzfeld telepathy studies reported by Bem & Honorton. In 76 > sessions we obtained 25 direct hits, which is quite close to the 33% > meta-analytic hit rate previously reported by Honorton et al.. > Our methodology was based on Honorton's auto-ganzfeld setup, which > automated most aspects of the experiment, except we were even more > obsessive: Our system uses a computer to randomly select the target, > to automatically present the target clip to the sender, to > automatically present the judging clips in a random order to the > receiver, and to store the data. The receiver and sender rooms are > 25 meters apart, behind 4 doors, and sound-shielded to 100 dB. > We only use volunteer subjects claiming no special abilities, > typically for one or two sessions. The methodology and preliminary > study results will be reported in detail in August at the annual > Parapsychological Association convention. Some of our other plans > are reported in the 15 May 93 New Scientist cover article on > telepathy. UFOs and Flying Saucers ======================= 3.1 What are UFOs? ------------------- UFOs are, simply, Unidentified Flying Objects, no more, no less. The word "object" is used in a very broad way, not to imply a physical "object" but more an experienced phenomenon, e.g. something seen, heard, "sensed" etc. This means that if you are out one night and see a light moving in the sky and cannot immediately identify it as a certain star, planet or other object, then it is by definition a UFO. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU HAVE SEEN AN ALIEN SPACESHIP. A better question would be: 3.1.1 Are UFOs alien spacecraft? --------------------------------- Probably not. The vast majority of UFO reports, when investigated by competent researchers (and that is a problem all by itself), can be easily explained as natural or manmade objects misidentified for one reason or another. The actual percentage is around 95%. A very few reports are provable hoaxes. The remaining few percent (some skeptics argue that there are no remaining reports) are not explained at this time. Again, this does not mean that they are observations of alien spaceships. All we can say is that, given the information presently available, some cases don't appear to be stars, balloons, airplanes, aurorae. etc. Given a great deal more time and effort, many more could likely be identified. It's possible that the witness(es) were in error, or are very good liars. And the remaining few cases? Well, the best we can say, as true skeptics, is that we don't know what they were, but there is NO proof that they were alien spacecraft. 3.1.2 Are UFOs natural phenomena? ---------------------------------- Possibly. A number of theories have been proposed, suggesting that some UFOs are "plasmas" or variations of ball lightning or earthquake lights. Unfortunately, the theories seem to change to fit observed data, rather than predict the observations. Also, studies designed to support the theories have used newspaper articles and raw, unsifted UFO case lists for data, and therefore the studies do not appear to be completely unbiased. Perhaps time will tell. Until then it is safe to say that SOME UFOs are probably ball lightning or other rare natural phenomena. 3.1.3 But isn't it possible that aliens are visiting Earth? ------------------------------------------------------------ Yes. But it is also possible that there is an invisible snorg reading this over your shoulder right now. Basically, some astronomers (e.g. Carl Sagan) are convinced that there are other habitable planets in our galaxy, and that there may be some form of life on them. Assuming that parallel evolution occurred on these other planets, there MIGHT be intelligent life forms there. It is possible that some of these life forms could have an advanced civilization, and perhaps have achieved space travel. BUT - there is no proof that this is so. SETI programs such as the High Resolution Microwave Search now being conducted by NASA under the direction of Jill Tartar are "listening" to other stars in the hope of detecting radio signals that might indicate intelligent life - kind of listening for the equivalent of "Watson, come here, I need you!", or "I love Lucy" in the infancy of our early communications. Such searches have been fruitless, so far. If there are aliens on distant planets, then it is possible that they might have found a way to travel between stars in their lifetimes. According to our present understanding of physics, this is not likely, given the vast distances between stars. Even travelling at the speed of light (which cannot be done), a round trip to the nearest star would take about ten years. This does not rule out interstellar ships, but it does make it seem unlikely that we are being visited. If *even one* civilization has found a way to travel between stars in the entire history of the Milky Way Galaxy (about ten billion years), it ought to fill the entire Galaxy in only a hundred million years or so. The question, then, is why don't we observe evidence of alien civilization everywhere? This question is known as the Fermi Paradox, and there is no really satisfactory answer. If, however, we postulate alien visits to Earth, we must also accept a Galaxy-wide civilization and ask why we see no evidence of it. 3.2: Is it true that the US government has a crashed flying saucer (MJ-12)? --------------------------------------------------------------------------- The MJ-12 documents purportedly established that the U.S. government had established a secret organization of 12 people called MJ-12 or Majestic-12 to deal with UFOs. These 12 people were all conveniently dead at the time the documents were discovered. Klass proved that the documents are fakes. The "Roswell Incident" refers to an alleged UFO crash in Roswell, NM. Philip Klass has also investigated this one and shown the reports to be bogus. One of the more notable items of "evidence" was a document "signed by the president". Klass showed that this signature was a photocopy of an existing presidential signature. See SI 14:2 (Winter 1990) pp 135-140. All such allegations involve a conspiracy theory. Sometimes these conspiracy theories get very big indeed. One common one involves a treaty between the government and the saucer people whereby the government stays in power and the saucer people get to abduct humans for various gruesome purposes. 3.3: What is "channeling"? -------------------------- "Channeling" is remarkably similar to Spiritualism. The main difference is that the relatives "on the other side" are replaced by a wide variety of other beings. This means that the channeler does not have to worry about providing accurate information about people in the audience. The beings that channelers claim to speak for range from enlightened aliens to humans who lived thousands of years ago to discarnate intelligences who have never had bodies. 3.4: How can we test a channeler? --------------------------------- Some channelled entities are alleged to come from the distant past. They can be asked about events, climate and language in ways that can be checked. Until the start of 1996, I had said the following: If the entity is from a technically advanced race, try asking for the complete factorisation of 2^1024+1. This has now been factorised, so this is no longer a good question. 3.5: I am in telepathic contact with the aliens. ------------------------------------------------ See the earlier section on psychic experiences and then try testing your aliens to see if you get a specific answer. If you can come up with new facts that can be tested by scientists then you will be listened to. Otherwise you would do better on alt.alien.visitors. 3.6: Some bozo has just posted a load of "teachings" from a UFO. What ---------------------------------------------------------------------- should I do? ------------ You have several choices: * Ignore it. * Ask for evidence (see question 3.4 above). * Insult or flame the poster. This is a bad idea. 3.7: Are crop circles made by flying saucers? --------------------------------------------- There is no convincing evidence that crop circles or any other kind of UGM (Unusual Ground Markings) were made by aliens. There are some reports of lights being seen in and around crop circle sites, and a few videos showing objects flitting over fields. The lights are hardly proof, and the objects in the videos seem to be pieces of foil or paper being tossed about by the wind. In a deliberate attempt to test crop circle "experts", a crop circle was faked under the watchful eyes of the media. When cerealogists were called in, they proclaimed it genuine. 3.7.1: Are crop circles made by "vortices"? --------------------------------------------- Probably not. There are a number of meteorologists who believe that crop circle formations are created by rare natural forces such as "ionised plasma vortices". Basically, winds blowing across rolling hills sometimes form eddies, which in some circumstances (that have never been quantified) become strong, downward spiralling drafts that lay down the crop. Cerealogists claim to have over two dozen witnesses to such events. Unfortunately, many more have said they have seen flying saucers do the same thing. Scientific articles arguing for the reality of these vortices have appeared regularly in the Journal of Meteorology. But its editor is the leading proponent of the theory, Dr. Terence Meaden. Winds can lay down crop in patches known as lodging. But geometric patterns in fields can hardly be attributable to natural phenomena. Meaden has changed his theory to first accommodate complex circles, ovals and even triangles (!), but now admits that most circles are hoaxes and the theory can only explain simpler patterns. 3.7.2: Are crop circles made by hoaxers? ----------------------------------------- Of course. Although most people have heard only of two, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley of England, many others have been caught, not only in Britain but in other countries such as Canada. Their methods range from inscribed circles with a pole and a length of rope to more complex systems involving chains, rollers, planks and measuring devices. And as a further note: just because you can't prove a crop circle was made by a hoaxer, you should not assume aliens were involved. Remember Occam's Razor (Section 1.6). 3.7.3: Are crop circles radioactive? -------------------------------------- This is a claim that has received wide circulation in UFO/cerealogy circles (pardon the pun). It is also untrue. Examination of the data from spectral analyses of soil taken from crop circles has shown that there were no readings above the normal background levels. The proponents of this claim are debating this, however. 3.7.4: What about cellular changes in plants within crop circles? ------------------------------------------------------------------- Yes, what about the changes? Although this is another claim that is widely circulated among ufologists and cerealogists, the evidence is simply not very good. A few photographs of alleged changes in the "crystalline structure" of wheat stems were published in some magazines and UFO publications. The method used was spagyrical analysis. This is a technique involving crystallization of the residue of organic material after harsh processing, invented three centuries ago and popularized by Sir Kenelm Digby. Digby is known for other wonderful inventions like condensation of sunlight and the development of sword salve (which you had to put on the weapon rather than on the wound, in order to cure the wound). The fact that this technique was tried at all casts serious doubts on the "researchers" involved. 3.8: Have people been abducted by UFOs? --------------------------------------- While the number of people who believe themselves to have been abducted by flying saucer aliens must number at least many thousands, not one of them has produced any physical evidence to establish the reality of their claim. On the contrary, a number of factors clearly point to a subjective basis for the "UFO abduction" phenomenon. Probably the strongest factor is that of the cultural dependence of such claims. Such claims were virtually unknown until the famous abduction story of Betty and Barney Hill received widespread publicity in the late 1960s. Also, the appearance and behavior of supposed UFO occupants varies greatly with location and year. UFO abduction claims are made much less frequently outside North America, especially in non-English-speaking countries, although foreign reports have started to catch up since the publication of Whitley Strieber's "Communion". Furthermore, the descriptions of supposed UFO aliens contain clear cultural dependencies; in North America large-headed grey aliens predominate, while in Britain abducting aliens are mostly tall, blond, and Nordic. Aliens that are claimed to steal sperm, eggs, and fetuses, or make scars or body implants on those supposedly abducted, were practically unknown before the publication of Budd Hopkins's books. This particularly alarming type of abduction seems to be quite rare outside North America. Clear "borrowings" from popular science fiction stories can be traced in certain major "UFO abductions." Barney Hill's description of his supposed abductors' "wraparound eyes" (an extreme rarity in science fiction films), first described and drawn during a hypnosis session on Feb. 22, 1964, comes just twelve days after the first broadcast of an episode of "The Outer Limits" featuring an alien of this quite unique description. Many other elements of the Hill story can be traced to the 1953 film "Invaders from Mars," including aliens having "Jimmy Durante" noses, an alien medical examination, something done to her eyes to relax her, being probed with a needle, a star map hanging on a wall, a notebook offered as a remembrance, even the imagery of a needle in the navel. Other "abductees" borrowed other ideas from "Invaders From Mars," including brain implants, aliens drilling into a human skull, and aliens seeking to revitalize a dying world. Originally, stories of UFO abductions were obtainable solely by hypnotic regression of the claimant, although in recent years the subject of "UFO abductions" has become so generally known that some subjects claim to remember their "abduction" without hypnosis. Hypnosis is a NOT a reliable method for extracting so- called "hidden memories", and its use in this manner is likely to lead to fabrication and error. Moreover, if it is suggested to a hypnotized person that fictitious events have occurred, the subject himself may come to believe this (See the article "Hypnosis" in the 1974 "Encyclopaedia Britannica" by Martin Orne, and section 10.1 on False Memory Syndrome). 3.9: What is causing the strange cattle deaths? ----------------------------------------------- Cattle and other animals have been found dead with strange mutilations. Organs, especially genitals, have been removed "with surgical precision" but no blood appears on the ground. These events are also sometimes associated with reports of alien encounters and UFOs. However: 1) Cattle are very expensive. Each "head" is worth several thousand dollars. 2) Insurance doesn't cover "range death" due to natural causes (e.g falling and killing themselves). 3) Insurance does cover vandalism (eg. a vandal shooting a cow). 4) A space alien killing a cow will be covered by the insurance - provided a cooperating policeman will write up the report that way. 5) Space aliens mutilating cows seem to respect county (police jurisdiction) lines. 6) Relatively little blood leaks out of a dead animal (compared to a live animal) when it is cut. The heart just isn't pumping. The best source of information on cattle mutilations is the book Mute Evidence by Ian Summers and Daniel Kagan, a couple of investigative journalists who started out believing that something mysterious was happening, but ended up skeptics. SI has published James Stewart's "Cattle Mutilations: An Episode of Collective Delusion" (way back in vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 55-66). Stewart is a sociologist who examined the pattern of reports and found that new reports were inspired by previous media coverage. It came in "waves" or "flaps". 3.10: What is the face on Mars? ------------------------------- One of the Mars orbiters took a photograph of a part of Mars (Cydonia) when the sun was very low on the horizon. The picture shows a "face" and some nearby pyramids. Both these structures are seen more by their shadows than their actual shape. The pyramid shadows appear regular because their size is close to the limit of resolution of the camera, and the "face" is just a chance arrangement of shadow over a couple of hills. The human brain is very good at picking out familiar patterns in random noise, so it is not surprising that a couple of Martian surface features (out of thousands photographed) vaguely resemble a face when seen in the right light. Many people find the "face" more reminiscent of a monkey than a human being. Richard Hoagland has championed the idea that the Face is artificial, intended to resemble a human, and erected by an extraterrestrial civilization. Most other analysts concede that the resemblance is most likely accidental. Other Viking images show a smiley-faced crater and a lava flow resembling Kermit the Frog elsewhere on Mars. There exists a Mars Anomalies Research Society (sorry, don't know the address) to study the Face and related features. The Mars Observer spacecraft had (and for all we know it still has) a camera that could give 1.5m per pixel resolution. Unfortunately NASA scientists lost contact with the spacecraft just before it arrived at Mars. Among the theories proposed to explain this are: 1: The failure of a couple of transistors after spending years in space. 2: The presence of evil beings on Mars who wish to hide their existence from humanity (so why did they build the Face and let Viking see it?). 3: The existence of a conspiracy on the part of NASA and the US government to hide the existence of aliens from humanity (see section 0.8 on Conspiracy theories). Anyone who wants to learn some more about this should look up "Image Processing", volume 4 issue 3, which includes enhanced images of the "face". Hoagland has written "The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever", North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, USA, 1987. [Some of this is from the sci.space FAQs] 3.11: Did Ezekiel See a Flying Saucer? -------------------------------------- The chapter in question is Ezekiel 1:4-28. This vision is an example of apocalyptic writing common in the centuries before and after Christ. (Good examples are chapters 2 and 7-12 of Daniel and the book of Revelation.) Apocalyptic literature is difficult to interpret because the language is symbolic and figurative. In some cases the writer will reveal what is meant by the symbols. Verse 28 identifies Ezekiel's wheels within wheels vision as, "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD." This "glory" is the "Khabod", a manifestation of brilliant light thought to be present in the temple. The wheels are described as appearing in a *vision* which is more like an hallucination than a physical event. The wheels are seen again in Ezekiel chap 10 leaving the temple in Jerusalem, but Ezekiel sees this while sitting inside his house which is in Babylon (see Eze. 1:1-2 and Eze. 8:1). In other words this was a message from God (or a hallucination) rather than a physical event. 3.12: What happened at Tunguska? -------------------------------- At 7:17 in the morning of June 30th 1908, close to the Stony Tunguska River, on the Central Siberian Plateau, a huge air explosion occurred. The explosion was powerful enough to be heard hundreds of miles away. The area around the Stony Tunguska River is inaccessible and consists mostly of bogs and pine forests. The seismic shocks from the explosion were detected around the Earth. The London Times of July 4th, 1908 reported "The remarkable ruddy glows which have been seen on many nights lately...seen...as far as Berlin." When an expedition eventually reached the epicentre of the explosion they found that the pine trees had been pushed over, pointing away from the centre. The trees directly under the explosion remained standing. Some small craters *were* observed at the time but have disappeared over the years due to the boggy land. The pattern is now recognised as being similar to that produced by an air-burst nuclear bomb. Currently the event is usually explained as a small, unnoticed, comet hitting the upper atmosphere somewhere over China and finally exploding a few seconds later above Tunguska. A number of other explanations have been offered... * an atomic explosion. Some reports collected some time after the event describe a typical mushroom cloud. The problem here is that such clouds are typical of large explosions due to any cause - they are not peculiar to atomic explosions. There is also the difficulty in explaining how the Russians first developed and then forgot the technology when it would have been very useful in two major wars! * a small black hole weighing a few million tons passed through the Earth. The other entry/exit point was unnoticed as it was in the ocean. Steven Hawking has now shown that black holes of such a size have very short lives in cosmic terms due to an `evaporation' effect. * a small anti-matter meteor. This now seems very unlikely with the recent discovery of large amounts of inter-stellar matter in which, although still close to a vacuum, is quite sufficient to erode any small amount of anti-matter quite rapidly. In addition, the very existence of anti-matter in any sizable amounts in our universe is now thought to be very unlikely. * an alien spaceship, damaged and out of control, exploded during an emergency landing. There is no supporting evidence for this apart from eye witness reports of the vapour trail caused during the objects passage through the atmosphere showing a distinct `bend', which is supposed to be due to a course change. Such bends can also be found in the vapour trails of aircraft which can be seen to be flying straight and are caused by winds in the upper atmosphere. The event is not such a mystery as some suppose. In 1969 a Soviet periodical published a bibliography of more than 1000 entries. Though these are mostly in Russian it is not difficult to find references in western scientific publications. `Nature' has published a number of papers covering most of the above explanations. References John Baxter and Thomas Atkins, "The Fire Came By", Futura Publications Ltd, 1977, ISBN 0 86000 7540 0 Oliver, Charles P. "The Great Siberian Meteorite," Scientific American, Vol. 139, No. 1(1928), 42-44 Growther, J.G. "More About the Great Siberian Meteorite," Scientific American, Vol. 144, No. 5 (1931), 314-317 Zigel, Felix. "Nuclear Explosion over the Taiga: Study of the Tunguska Meteorite," Znaniye-Sila, No. 12 (1961), 24-27 [English translation available from Joint Publications Research Service, Washington, DC., JPRS-13480 (April 1962) Parry, Albert. "Russia's Rockets and Missiles" Macmillan 1962, pp 248-267 Cowan,C.,C.R. Atluri and W.F. Libby. "Possible Anti-Matter Content of the Tunguska Meteor of 1908," Nature, Vol. 206, No. 4987 (1965), 861-865 Jackson, A.A., and M.P. Ryan, "Was the Tungus Event Due to a Black Hole?", Nature, Vol. 245, No. 5420 (1973), 88-89 3.13: How did the Dogon know about Sirius? ------------------------------------------ The story goes that when they were first contacted by Europeans, a small stone-age tribe in Africa called the Dogon knew about a string of astronomical phenomena, including Jovian satellites, the rings of Saturn and the invisible companion star of Sirius ("The Pup"). Some UFO enthusiasts have taken this as proof of visits to the Dogon by aliens. In "Broca's Brain", Carl Sagan writes: The most striking aspects of Dogon astronomy have been recounted by Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist working in the 1930s and 1940s. While there is no reason to doubt Griaule's account, it is important to note that there is no earlier Western record of these remarkable Dogon folk beliefs [...] The facts known to the Dogon were mostly discovered over a century before Griaule discovered them. It is most likely that the Dogon got this knowledge from human visitors rather than extra-terrestrial ones. In addition their astronomy included a number of facts which were widely accepted in the 1920s but which are now known to be false. It seems odd that visiting aliens would have made the same mistakes. Apparently a debunking of Dogon astronomy can be found in an article by W. Van Beck in _Current Anthropology_, vol. 32, pp. 139-167, 1991. Faith Healing and Alternative Therapies ======================================= Disclaimer: I am not medically qualified. If you have a medical problem then I strongly recommend that you go to a qualified medical practitioner. Asking the Net for specific medical advice is always a bad idea. 4.1: Isn't western medicine reductionistic and alternatives holistic? --------------------------------------------------------------------- Practitioners of alternative therapies often put forward the idea that modern scientific medicine is reductionistic: it concentrates on those parts of the body that are not working properly, and in so doing it reduces the patient to a collection of organs. Alternative therapies try to consider the patient as a whole (a holistic approach). This is a fine piece of rhetoric, but it's wrong. It is true that modern medicine looks at the details of diseases, trying to find out exactly what is going wrong and what is causing it. But it also looks at the life of the patient, and tries to understand how the patient interacts with his/her environment and how this interaction can be improved. For instance, smoking is known to cause a wide variety of medical problems. Hence doctors advise patients to give up smoking as well as treating the individual illnesses that it causes. When a patient presents with an illness then the doctor will not only treat the illness but also try to understand how this illness was caused in order to avoid a recurrence. 4.2: What is a double-blind trial? What is a placebo? ------------------------------------------------------ A double-blind trial is the standard method for deciding whether or not a treatment has any "real" effect. A placebo is a "treatment" that has no effect except through the mind of the patient. The usual form is a pill containing a little lactose (milk-sugar), although a bitter-tasting liquid or injections of 1cc saline can be used instead. The "placebo effect" is the observed tendency for patients to display the symptoms they are told to expect. The problem is that the state of mind of a patient is often a significant factor in the effect of a course of treatment. All doctors know this; it is why "bedside manner" is considered so important. In statistical tests of new treatments it is even more important, since even a small effect from the state of mind of a small fraction of the patients in the trial can have a significant effect on the results. Hence new medicines are tested against a placebo. The patients in the trial are randomly divided into two groups. One of these groups is given the real medicine, the other is given the placebo. Neither group knows which they have been given. Hence the state of mind for both groups will be similar, and any difference between the two groups must be due to the drug. This is a blind trial. It has been found that patients can be unconsciously affected by the attitude and expectations of the doctor supplying the drug, even if the doctor does not explicitly tell them what to expect. Hence it is usual for the doctor to be equally unaware which group is which. This is a "double blind" trial. The job of remembering which group is which is given to some administrative person who does not normally come into contact with patients. This causes problems for many alternative therapies because they do something to the patient which is difficult to do in a placebo-like manner. For instance, a treatment involving the laying-on of hands cannot be done in such a way that both patient and practitioner are unaware as to whether a "real" laying on of hands has taken place. There are partial solutions to this. For instance one study employed a three-way test of drug placebo, counseling and alternative therapy. 4.3: Why should scientific criteria apply to alternative therapies? ------------------------------------------------------------------- So that we can tell if they work or not. If you take a patient and give them treatment then one of three things will happen: the patient will get better, will get worse, or will not change. And this is true whether the treatment is a course of drugs chosen by a doctor, an alternative therapy, or just counting to ten. Many alternative therapies depend on "anecdotal evidence" where particular cases got better after the therapy was applied. Almost any therapy will have some such cases, even if it actually harms the patients. And so anecdotal evidence of Mrs. X who was cured of cancer by this wonderful new treatment is not useful in deciding whether the treatment is any good. The only way to tell for sure whether or not an alternative treatment works is to use a double-blind trial, or as near to it as you can get. See the previous question. 4.4: What is homeopathy? ------------------------ Homeopathy is sometimes confused with herbalism. A herbalist prescribes herbs with known medicinal effects. Two well known examples are foxglove flowers (which contain digitalin) and willow bark (which contains aspirin). Folk remedies are now being studied extensively in order to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Homeopathists believe that if a drug produces symptoms similar to certain disease then a highly diluted form of the same drug will cure the disease. The greater the dilution, the stronger this curative effect will be (this is known as the law of Arndt-Schulz). Great importance is also attached to the way in which the diluted solution is shaken during the dilution. People are skeptical about homeopathy because: 1: There is no known mechanism by which it can work. Many homeopathic treatments are so diluted that not one molecule of the original substance is contained in the final dose. 2: The indicator symptoms are highly subjective. Some substances have hundreds of trivial indicators. 3: Almost no clinical tests have been done. 4: It is not clear why trace impurities in the dilutants are not also fortified by the dilution mechanism. Although homeopathy involves little more than doing nothing, it was invented in the days when doing nothing was usually better for the patient than conventional treatment. It therefore represented a significant advance in medical practice. Since then conventional medicine has improved beyond recognition, while homeopathy is still equivalent to doing nothing. Reports of one scientific trial that seemed to provide evidence for homeopathy until a double-blind trial was set up can be found in Nature vol 333, p.816 and further, and the few issues of Nature following that, about until November of that year (1988). SI ran a good article on the origins and claims of homeopathy: Stephen Barrett, M.D., "Homeopathy: Is It Medicine?", SI, vol. 12, no. 1, Fall 1987, pp. 56-62. 4.5: What is aromatherapy? -------------------------- A belief that the essential oils of various flowers have therapeutic effects. These effects are psychological rather than physical, and so its a bit difficult to define what we mean by a statement that "it works". After all, if people do it and feel better then that is a real effect, whether it occurred because of suggestion or because the flowers contain a powerful psychoactive drug. 4.6: What is reflexology? What is iridology? --------------------------------------------- Reflexology is an alternative therapy based on massage of the feet. The idea is that parts of the body can be mapped onto areas of the feet. There is no known mechanism by which massaging the feet can affect other parts of the body (other than the simple soothing and relaxing effect that any massage gives) and no evidence that it actually works. Iridology is a remarkably similar notion. Diseases are detected and diagnosed by examining the iris of the eye. A good critique of iridology: Russell S. Worrall, "Iridology: Diagnosis or Delusion?", SI, vol. 7 no. 3, pp. 23-35. 4.7: Does acupuncture work? ---------------------------- There is evidence that acupuncture treatment has an analgesic ("pain killing") effect. The mechanism seems to involve the endogenous opiate system (at least in part), but the exact mechanism by which endogenous opiates are released by acupuncture skin stimulation is not yet known. It does not appear that the effect can be explained simply by pain caused by the needles. However it is possible to achieve similar effects by suggestion alone, suggesting that acupuncture is no more than a placebo. There have been reports of measurable physiological effects, apparently via local changes in the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. While much more detail remains to be elucidated, this is at least a testable hypothesis which brings acupuncture within the realm of science. This suggests that acupuncture might be a useful tool in pain management, but that it is unlikely to be of value in curing the underlying cause of the pain. The traditional theory of acupuncture involves balancing the yin and yang (male and female principles) which flow in pathways through the body. Nothing bearing any resemblance to this has been found by medical researchers. References: Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture: Past, Present and Future. In: Examining Holistic Medicine by Stalker D & Glymour G (eds), Prometheus Books, NY Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture and Endorphins. Lancet 1984;i:220 Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture and the Age of Unreason. Lancet 1984;i:1169-1171 Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture-Needless Needles. Irish Medical Journal1986;79:334-335 A 1977 study, Stern, Brown, Ulett, and Sletten, 'A comparison of hypnosis, acupuncture, morphine, Valium, aspirin, and placebo in the management of experimentally induced pain,' Annals_of_the_New_York_ Academy_of_Sciences, 296, 175-193, found that acupuncture, morphine, and hypnostic analgesia all produced significantly reduced pain ratings for cold pressor and ischemic pain. Mayer,Price, Raffi, 1977, "Antagonism of acupuncture analgesia in man by the narcotic antagonist naloxone," _Brain_Research_, 121, 368-372. Sjolund, Terenius, Erikson, 1977, "Increased cerebrospinal fluid levels of endorphins after electroacupuncture," Acta_Physiologica_Scandinavica, 100, 382-384. "Practical application of acupuncture analgesia" and it's by Cheng, SB (1973 Apr 27), _Nature 242(5400)_: 559-60. "Electrophysiological measures during acupuncture-induced surgical analgesia" by Starr A (1989 Sep) _Arch Neurol 46(9)_: 1010-12. 4.8: What about psychic surgery? -------------------------------- Psychic surgeons have claimed to be able to make magical incisions, remove cancers and perform other miracles. To date, no investigation of a psychic surgeon has ever found real paranormal ability. Instead they have found one of two things: 1: Simple conjuring tricks. The "surgeons" in these cases are confidence tricksters who prey on the desperate and the foolish. 2: Delusions of grandeur. These people are even more dangerous than the first category, as their treatments may actually cause harm in addition to whatever was wrong with the patient in the first place. 4.9: What is Crystal Healing? ----------------------------- The belief that carrying a small quartz crystal will make you a healthier person. People selling these crystals use phrases like "the body's natural energy fields" and "tuning into the right vibrational frequencies". All this sounds vaguely scientific but means absolutely nothing. Crystal Healing is mostly a New Age idea. See the section on the New Age below for more information. 4.10: Does religious healing work? ---------------------------------- Miraculous healing is often put forward as a proof of the existence and approval of God. The Catholic and Christian Scientist churches in particular often claim that believers have been healed, but none of these healings have stood up to careful scrutiny. However it should be noted that the Catholic church does investigate alleged miracles. One famous "healing" which has been carefully investigated is the case of Mrs. Jean Neil. Many people have seen the video of her getting out of a wheel-chair and running around the stadium at meeting led by the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke. This was investigated by Dr. Peter May, a GP and member of the General Synod of the Church of England. His findings were reported in the Skeptic (organ of the UK Skeptics). Here is a summary of the report. [Any errors are mine. PAJ]. May found that Mrs. Neil was helpful and enthusiastic when he contacted her, and there is little doubt that her quality of life has improved greatly since the "healing". However May was unable to find any physical changes. His report lists each of the illnesses claimed by Mrs. Neil, and he found that they were either not recorded by doctors previous to the healing or that no physical change had taken place. It seems that the only change in Mrs. Neil was in her mental state. Before the healing she was depressed and introverted. Afterwards she became happy and outgoing. A more sinister aspect of the story is the presentation of the Neil case in a video promoted by CfaN Productions. This represented Mrs. Neil before the healing as a "hopeless case", implied that she had a single serious illness rather than a series of less major ones, and included the false statement that she had been confined to a wheelchair for 25 years (in fact Mrs. Neil had used a wheelchair for about 15 months and could still walk, although with great difficulty). A report on her spine was carefully edited to include statements about her new pain-free movement but to exclude the statement that there was no evidence of physical changes. For the full report, see "The Skeptic" p9, vol. 5, no. 5, Sept. 91. Back issues are available from "The Skeptic (Dept. B), P.O. Box 475, Manchester, M60 2TH, U.K. Price UKL 2.10 for UK, UKL 2.70 elsewhere. The video is entitled "Something to Shout About --- The Documentation of a Miracle". Presumably "CfaN Productions" is part of Bonke's organisation "Christ for all Nations" [does anyone have an address?] Of course, this does not disprove the existence of miraculous healing. Even Mrs. Neil's improvement could have been due to divine intervention rather than a sub-conscious decision to get better (as most skeptics would conclude, although the May report carefully refrains from doing so). I include this summary here because the Neil case is often cited by evangelical Christians as an undeniable miracle. In fact the case demonstrates that even such dramatic events as a cripple getting up and running may not be so very inexplicable. For more general coverage of this topic, see James Randi's book "The Faith Healers". Free Inquiry magazine has also run exposes on fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff and W.V. Grant. 4.11: What harm does it do anyway? ---------------------------------- People have died when alternative practitioners told them to stop taking conventional treatment. Children have died when their parents refused to give them conventional treatment. These issues matter. Most alternative treatments are harmless, so the "complementary medicine" approach where conventional and alternative therapies proceed in parallel will not hurt anyone physically (although it is a waste of time and money). Creation versus Evolution ========================= 5.1: Is the Bible evidence of anything? --------------------------------------- Apart from the beliefs of those who wrote it, no. It is true that most Christians take the truth of at least some parts of the bible as an article of faith, but non-Christians are not so constrained. Quoting the bible to such a person as "evidence" will simply cause them to question the accuracy of the bible. See the talk.atheism FAQ lists for more details. Some things in the bible are demonstrably true, but this does not make the bible evidence, since there are also things in the bible that are demonstrably false. 5.2: Could the Universe have been created old? ---------------------------------------------- An argument is sometimes put forward along the following lines: We know from biblical evidence (see above) that the Universe is about 6,000 years old. Therefore God created it 6,000 years ago with fossils in the ground and light on its way from distant stars, so that there is no way of telling the real age of the Universe simply by looking at it. This is the "Omphalos" (Navel) theory of Edmund Gosse. Adam had no mother so did not need a navel, but was created by God with one, i.e. physical proof of connection with a nonexistent mother. Similarly, at the moment of Creation the world was chock-full of things that must have happened yesterday, when yesterday did not exist. The hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and therefore not a scientific one (see the section on the scientific method). It could also be made for any date in the past (like last Tuesday). Finally it requires that God, who is alleged to speak to us through His Works, should be lying to us by setting up a misleading Creation. This seems to be rather inconsistent with Biblical claims of God being the source of all truth. One might also argue that in creating the universe "old", God also created the past of the universe. This "fake" past must be a perfect match with the "real" past (otherwise we could spot the join). Hence the events from before the moment of "creation" are just as real as the events which have happened since. Since God is supposed to exist independently of time and space, this makes the whole idea meaningless. Note that this argument is not put forward by creation scientists. They hold that modern science has misinterpreted the evidence about the age of the universe. 5.3: What about Carbon-14 dating? --------------------------------- Isotope dating takes advantage of the fact that radioactive materials break down at a rate independent of their environment. Any solid object that formed containing radioactive materials therefore steadily loses them to decay. If it is possible to compare the amount of radioactive material currently present with the amount originally present, one can deduce how long ago the object was formed. The amount originally present cannot, of course, be observed directly, but can be determined by indirect means, such as identifying the decay products. C-14 dating uses an unstable isotope of carbon that is constantly being produced in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays. This process is assumed to be in equilibrium with the decay of C-14 throughout the biosphere, so the proportion of carbon that is C-14 as opposed to the stable C-12 and C-13 isotopes is essentially constant in any living organism. When an organism dies, it stops taking up new carbon from its environment, but the C-14 in its body continues to decay. By measuring the amount of C-14 left in organic remains, one can establish how long ago the organism they came from died. Because C-14 has a half-life of only a few thousand years, C-14 dating can only be used for remains less than a few tens of thousands of years old-- after that, the C-14 is entirely gone, to all practical purposes. Other isotopic dating techniques, such as potassium-argon dating, use much longer-lived radionuclides and can reliably measure dates billions of years in the past. Actually the production rate isn't all that constant, so the amount of C-14 in the biosphere varies somewhat with time. You also need to be sure that the only source of carbon for the organism was atmospheric carbon (via plants). The nominal date from a C-14 reading, based on the present concentration, therefore has to be corrected to get the real date --- but once the correction has been calculated using an independent dating tool like dendrochronology (see below), it can be applied to almost any sample. There are some known anomalies in C14 dating, such as molluscs that get their carbon from water. Creationists seem to make a habit of taking samples that are known to be useless for C14 dating, presenting them to scientists for examination, representing them as other than they are, and then claiming the anomalous dates they get for them as evidence that C14 dating is all a sham. While it is true that there *may* be unknown errors in some dating methods (see the note in section 0 about science "proving" things) this assertion cannot be used to write off isotope dating as evidence of an ancient Earth. This is because: o There are several independent ways of dating objects, including radio-isotopes, dendrochronology, position in rock strata etc. These all give a consistent picture. o Dating methods all point to an *old* Earth, about *half a million* times older than the Creationists claim. This requires dating methods which are accurate up to 6,000 years ago and then suddenly start to give completely wrong (but still consistent) answers. Even if our dating methods are out by a factor of 10 or 100, the earth is still thousands of times older than Creationists claim. 5.4: What is dendrochronology? ------------------------------ The science of dating wood by a study of annual rings. [These figures and references come from a longer summary e-mailed to me by <whheydt@pbhya.PacBell.com>. Any mistakes are mine. PAJ] Everyone knows that when you cut down a tree the cut surface shows a series of concentric rings, and that one of these rings is added each year as the tree grows. The lighter part of the ring is the summer growth and the darker part is the winter growth. Hence you can date a tree by counting the rings. But the rings are not evenly spaced. Some rings are wider than others. These correspond to good and poor growing seasons. So if you have a piece of wood cut down a few thousand years ago, you can date it by comparing the pattern of rings in your sample to known patterns in recently cut trees (Bristlecone pines exist which are over 4600 years old, and core samples allow ring counting without killing the tree). Now for the clever bit. The tree from which your sample came may have been old before any trees now alive were even saplings. So you can extend the known pattern of rings back even further, and hence date samples of wood which are even older. By lining up samples of wood in this way, dendrochronologists have been able to produce a continuous pattern of rings going back around 9,900 years. This easily refutes the chronology of Bishop Usher, who calculated from dates and ages given in the Bible that the Earth was created in 4004 BC. Dendrochronology is also valuable in providing calibration data for C14 and other isotope dating methods. See the previous question for more details. References: "Dendrochronology of the Bristlecone Pine....." by C. W. Ferguson, 1970. Published in a book called "Radiocarbon Variations and Absolute Chronology" This takes the record back 7484 years. More recently there is Bernd Becker, Bernd Kromer & Peter Timborn "A stable-isotope tree-ring timescale of the Late Glacial/Holocene boundary" Nature 353 (1991) pp. 647-649 The authors have "established a 9,928 year absolute dated dendrochronological record of Holocene oak." Actually, their timescale goes even further back, because by overlap with a pine tree sequence they date the end of the Late Glacial at a minimum age op 10,970 BP. 5.5: What is evolution? Where can I find out more? --------------------------------------------------- Many creationist "refutations" of evolution are based on a straw-man argument. The technique is to misrepresent the theory of evolution, putting forward an absurd theory as "what scientists claim". The absurdity of this pseudo-evolution theory is then ridiculed. * Debunking all these refutations would take a lot of space. Instead I suggest that anyone interested should go and read the FAQ lists over on talk.origins. These contain good explanations of what evolution is (and isn't). The talk.origins Welcome FAQ is posted every 14 days to news.answers and talk.answers. It contains instructions for FTPing the other FAQs. * Books and essays on the subject by Stephen Jay Gould are good, and "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins is the sort of book that makes you want to find a creationist to argue with. Also see "Darwinism Defended: a guide to the Evolution Controversies" by Michael Ruse (Addison-Wesley, 1982). * A. Strahler, _Science and Earth History_ (1987, Prometheus Books, ISBN 0-87975-414-1, 552 pp). Strahler's book is heavily referenced, thoroughly indexed, and covers most of the common creationist arguments. There are only a handful of books explicitly aimed at addressing creationist claims, and this one is the best of the lot. NCSE sells Strahler's book for $47.95 ($38.55 for members). * The NCSE is the only national (American) anti-creationism organization. NCSE is affiliated with the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science -- publishers of the journal _Science_) and NSTA (National Science Teacher's Association). The organization is mainly aimed at negating creationists' efforts to get into public school science classes. There are no membership requirements. Membership costs $25 per year ($32 foreign, $39 foreign air delivery). All members receive the quarterly newsletter _NCSE Reports_ and the semi-annual _Creation/ Evolution Journal_, as well as discounts from their book ordering service. NCSE sells a decent selection of books, taped speeches and debates, and other relevant material. NCSE (National Center for Science Education) P.O. Box 9477 / Berkeley, CA 94709 (510) 526-1674 5.6: "The second law of thermodynamics says.... ----------------------------------------------- ...that entropy is always increasing. Entropy is a measure of the randomness in a system. So the universe is getting more and more disordered. But if this is so, how can life happen, since evolutionists claim essentially that life is a system that becomes more ordered with time?" [ The following answer was kindly contributed by Dr. Roydon A. Fraser, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, CANADA. email <rafraser@mechoffice.watstar.uwaterloo.ca>. ] This line of reasoning would be valid if it were not for the simple fact that the above is a misstatement of the second law of thermodynamics. A correct statement reads, "The second law of thermodynamics states that the net entropy within an ISOLATED system is always increasing or remains constant." An isolated system is one that does not undergo a change of state due to external work or heat transfer. The entropy in an isolated system in equilibrium is constant at its maximum value. The major key here to demonstrating that life on earth does not violate the second law is to realize that the earth is a NON-isolated system. The earth is continuously absorbing radiative heat transfer energy from the sun and continuously transferring thermal energy to outer-space through thermal emissions. Because the earth participates in these heat transfer processes it is non-isolated. For instance, when you freeze water the molecules of H2O line up in beautifully organised crystals. This organisation does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because the work done by the freezer in extracting the heat from the water has caused the total entropy of the *universe* to rise, even though the entropy of the *water* has decreased. Similarly the existence of life on earth has not decreased the entropy of the universe, so the second law has not been violated. From a classical thermodynamics perspective the universe as a whole is isolated, and hence, the net entropy (disorder) of the universe continues to increase (the situation where the universe's entropy remains constant does not exist because we live in a universe with friction). The second law states that the entropy of the sun plus the earth's entropy plus the entropy of outer-space (i.e, the net entropy) cannot decrease. It is completely acceptable for the entropy of the earth to decrease provided the net entropy of the sun and outer-space increases. As an analogy consider the freezing of water into ice. The entropy of ice is less than that of water because ice molecules are more organized (they are in a crystal lattice) than water molecules (which move about randomly). That is, the water's entropy has decreased, but only at the expense of increasing the entropy in the room and at the expense of a net increase in the universe's entropy (i.e., by the second law the entropy increase in the room must be equal to or be greater than the entropy decrease experienced by the water). It is interesting to observe that an enormous amount of entropy production is actually associated with the formation of life on earth. According to Plank (father of quantum mechanics) the entropy flow from the sun is proportional to the reciprocal of the sun's temperature. More precisely it is four thirds times the heat transfer from the sun all divided by the temperature of the sun (about 6000 kelvin). By the law of conservation of energy (and ignoring global warming) the heat flow from the sun to the earth is equal to the thermal radiative heat transfer from the earth to outer-space. The entropy flow from the earth is therefore four thirds times the heat transfer from the sun all divided by the temperature of the earth as seen from outer-space (about 300 kelvin = 27 celsius). Therefore, the entropy flow from the earth is greater than the entropy flow to the earth which means that entropy has been produced on earth (via friction, etc.). In conclusion the existence of life on earth does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. 5.7: How could living organisms arise "by chance"? -------------------------------------------------- This is actually a less sophisticated version of the question above. Consider freezing water as an example. The wonderful arrangement in crystals arises from the random movement of water molecules. But ice crystals do not require divine intervention as an explanation, and neither does the evolution of life. Also, consider a casino. An honest casino makes a profit from roulette wheels. The result of a spin of a particular wheel is purely random, but casinos make very predictable profits. So in evolutionary theory, even though the occurrence of a particular mutation is random, the overall effect of improved adaptation to the environment over time is not. The actual origin of life is more problematical. If you stick some ammonia, methane and a few other simple chemicals into a jar and subject them to ultraviolet light then after a week or two you get a mixture of organic molecules, including amino acids (the building blocks of protein). So current theories propose a "primordial soup" of dilute organic chemicals. Somewhere a molecule happened to form which could make copies of itself out of other molecules floating around in the soup, and the rest is history. Ilya Prigogine's work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics (for which he received a Nobel prize) shows that thermodynamic systems far out of equilibrium tend to produce spontaneous order through what he calls "dissipative structures". Dissipative structures trade a *local* increase in orderliness for faster overall increase in entropy. Life can be viewed as a dissipative structure in exactly this sense --- not a wildly improbable freak of combinations but as a natural, indeed inevitable result of the laws of thermodynamics. For more on this, see the relevant chapter in "Paradigms Lost" by John L. Casti (Avon paperback, 1989). 5.8: But doesn't the human body seem to be well designed? --------------------------------------------------------- Not to me. Consider a few pieces of the human body for a moment. The back for instance. The reason we poor humans suffer so much from back problems is that the back is actually not well designed. And what about human reproduction. Can you imagine any engineer being proud of having designed *that*? 5.9: What about the thousands of scientists who have become Creationists? ------------------------------------------------------------------------- This outrageous claim is frequently made by creationists, but somehow these mystery scientists are never identified. It is claimed that these conversions have been caused by "the evidence", but this evidence never seems to be forthcoming either. To test this claim, try looking up "creation" and "bible" in any biology or paleontology journal index. Even if this claim were true, it would not be a reason to become a creationist. The only reason for adopting creationism as a scientific theory would be the production of convincing evidence. 5.10: Is the Speed of Light Decreasing? --------------------------------------- The origin of this claim is a paper by Norman & Setterfield which plots various historical measurements of the speed of light and claims to show a steady decrease. Extrapolating backwards, they conclude that the Universe is only about 6,000 years old. This also conveniently explains how we can see stars more than 6,000 light-years away. The first point about their paper is that it was originally distributed in Stanford Research Institute covers, and is sometimes described as an SRI report. However SRI did not have anything to do with the report and are tired of answering queries about it. Norman & Setterfield appear to have selected their data in order to support their hypothesis: graphs include only those points which are close to the "theoretical" curve while omitting points which are not close to the curve. This curve gives an inverse cosecant relationship between time and the speed of light. There is no justification for such a curve: the usual curve for a decaying value is exponential and this would have fitted the plotted data just as well as the inverse cosecant chosen by Norman and Setterfield. 5.11: What about Velikovsky? ---------------------------- In the 1950s a Russian psychologist named Immanuel Velikovsky wrote "Worlds in Collision". This book and its successors are remarkable for the density of scientific, archeological and mythological howlers. There are far too many to list here, but most are sufficient to cast serious doubt on his knowledge of any of these fields, and many are so large that even one is enough to refute the entire theory. Much of Velilovsky's proof lies in statements of the form "The reason for <X> is not known. My theory explains it as follows:". Many of these reasons were in fact known when Velikovsky wrote, and many others have been discovered since. None of these reasons bear any relationship to Velikovksy's theory. The predictive value of the theory appears to be nil. The books lack any mathematical analysis at all, which is strange considering that mathematics is the language of science, especially physics and astronomy. Some of the more noticeable howlers are: 1: Strange orbits which cannot be explained in terms of Newtonian mechanics (or indeed anything less than an angel sitting on a planet and steering it like a starship!). 2: The Earth's spin being altered suddenly by a close encounter with Venus, and then restored. Where to begin? Planets just don't do that. 3: A confusion between hydrocarbons (e.g petrol, mineral oil, tar) and carbohydrates (e.g sugar, starch, glucose). 4: World-shaking events (literally) which Velikovsky assumes were accurately recorded by the Israelites but not even noticed anywhere else, even quite close by. 5: Ancient records (e.g Mayan, Sumerian and Chinese astronomical observations) which contradict Velikovsky's theory. Velikovsy's supporters often cite a conspiracy theory to explain why the world of science refuses to take these ideas seriously. See section 0 of this FAQ. For more information, see: Worlds in Collision Immanuel Velikovsky Earth in Upheaval Immanuel Velikovsky Velikovsky Reconsidered The Editors of Pensee (has a lot of his papers in it, along with other papers pro-V.) Scientists Confront Velikovsky Donald Goldsmith Beyond Velikovsky: The History of a Public Controversy Henry H. Bauer Broca's Brain Carl Sagan Jim Meritt <jmeritt@mitre.org> has posted a long article on talk.origins which systematically demolishes Velikovsky's ideas. I don't know if it is archived anywhere. This section attempts to summarise it. Most discussion of Velikovsky occurs on talk.origins. 5.12: Are there human footprints from 250 million years ago? ------------------------------------------------------------ Claims that human footprints have been found mixed in with dinosaur tracks have been made since the 1960s. These fall into three groups: a: Carvings by ancient native americans. b: Modern carvings. c: Mis-identified dinosaur footprints. No credible evidence exists for human footprints in strata older than a few million years. References: Ingalis, A. G., 1940, The Carboniferous mystery. Scientific American, v. 162, p. 14. Jochmans, W., 1979, Strange Relicts from the depths of the Earth. Forgotten Ages Research Society, Lincoln, NB. Monroe, J. S., 1987, Creationism, Human Footprints, and Flood Geology. Journal of Geological Education. v. 35, p. 93. Owen, D. D., 1842, Regarding human foot-prints in solid limestone. Journal of Science, v. 43, p. 14-32. Sloan, R. E., 1983, The association of "human" and fossil footprints. in Evolution Versus Creationism: The Public Education Controversy, J. P. Zetterberg, ed., pp. 354-357, Oryx Press. Strahler, A. N., 1989, Chapter 48 Out of Order Fossils. in Science and Earth History - The Evolution/Creation Controversy, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York. Von Fange, E. A., 1981, Time Upside Down. Offset House Printing, Indianapolis, Indiana, 41 p. Weber, C. G., 1981, Paluxy man - the creationist Piltdown: Creation/Evolution, v. 6, pp. 16-22. Fire-walking ============ WARNING: Whatever the truth about firewalking may be, it is a potentially dangerous activity. Do not attempt it without expert guidance. [Please could one of the firewalkers on the net contribute a paragraph or two for this section. PAJ] 6.1: Is fire-walking possible? ------------------------------ Yes. It is possible to walk on a bed of burning wood without being hurt. 6.2: Can science explain fire-walking? -------------------------------------- There are a number of theories which have been put forward to explain firewalking. Any or all may be the explanation for a particular event. o The dry wood coals used by firewalkers conduct heat very poorly. The coal itself may be very hot but it will not transfer that heat to something touching it. o The coals are a very uneven surface, and the actual surface area of foot touching the coals is very small. Hence the conduction of heat is even slower. o Wood coals have a very low heat capacity, so although they are very hot there is actually not much heat energy to be transferred to the foot. o Firewalkers do not spend very much time on the coals, and they keep moving. Jan Willem Nienhuys <wsadjw@urc.tue.nl> adds that about 1 second total contact time per foot seems on the safe side. o Blood is a good conductor of heat. What heat does get through is quickly conducted away from the soles of the feet. o The "Leidenfrost" effect may play a part. This occurs when a cold, wet object (like a foot) touches a hot, dry object (like a burning coal). The water vaporises, creating a barrier of steam between the hot and cold objects. Hence the two objects do not actually touch and evaporation from the cold object is much slower than might otherwise be expected. Since steam is a relatively poor conductor of heat the foot does not get burned. Jearl Walker, of Scientific American's "The Amateur Scientist" column, explains the Leidenfrost effect in the August 1977 issue; he walked across coals unharmed and attributes this to the Leidenfrost effect. Other scientists believe that the Leidenfrost effect is unimportant in firewalking. Pain perception is not as simple as everyday experience suggests. Some people experience great pain without any apparent cause. Others experience little or no pain despite great injury. Cognitive and emotional factors seem to be important. A belief that one has control over the pain seems to reduce the level of pain experienced. Fear seems to increase it. Firewalking is usually done in a religious or spiritual context. This would tend to reduce the level of pain experienced by firewalkers without affecting the amount of physical damage done to the feet. Some firewalkers put forward mystical explanations of why firewalking is possible without serious physical harm. A few skeptics have challenged these firewalkers to stand on hot metal plates instead of coals. Others have pointed out that making such a challenge in the belief that the firewalker would be seriously hurt is of dubious morality. Jay Mann from New Zealand writes: > The NZ CSICOP had a mass firewalk at its annual meeting in > Christchurch about 5 years ago. We had a lengthy afternoon talk by a > professor of physics, complete with demonstrations of tossing hot > bread loaves back and forth. The fire was built in mid-afternoon, and > the firewalk took place after the society banquet, that is, about 10 > p.m. > > One *never* walks on live coals. The fire is lit hours before the > actual walk. Large burning coals are removed. The firebed is carefully > raked to provide a continuous smooth layer of ashes over all burning > embers. By this time, it is dark and the firebed is seen to glow > ominously. It is still hot, and potatoes can be cooked in the ashes. On > the other hand, the rate of heat transfer through the ash is > time-limited. If participants take steady strides, even city-folk with > soft soles can manage at least five steps. In the Christchurch version, > we stepped in a small puddle of water at the end of the firewalk; I have > seen at least one description of a "commercial" firewalk where cooling > water was also provided. > > In Christchurch, dozens of people went across. Some went back for two > or three passages. The bed was re-raked periodically to restore the ash > layer. There were two or three minor burns and blisters the next day, > mostly people who had kicked embers up between their toes. Having done > a firewalk is a wonderful conversational topic, and most people will not > believe that you didn't have some sort of mystic faith and determination > to "protect" your body. > > Denis Dutton, then president of the NZSCICOP, later went to New Guinea > on a professional trip. There he trained one local tribe in firewalking > as way to attract the tourist dollar. The first few firewalkers, in a > private test, were cautious, but eventually the whole tribe-- man, > woman, and child -- gleefully ran through the "fire". For public > performance, the tribe added a lot of magical incantations and rituals. > Denis asked them how they would explain their knowledge of the trick. > They replied that they would say "an alien from the skies came and > taught us". You can imagine that people with tough soles from barefoot > walking could tolerate more exposure soft-soled city people. New Age ======= 7.1: What do New Agers believe? ------------------------------- An awful lot, it would seem. New Age is not a "religion" in the traditional sense of a defined set of spiritual beliefs. Instead it seems to be a label applied to a loose collection of religious cults, organisations and pseudo-sciences. Some of the more common themes are: o Belief that conscious thought molds reality to some extent. o Belief that religions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Eastern religions, especially "cult" religions, seem popular. Mainstream eastern religions such as Hinduism and Sihkism don't seem to attract New Age believers. Most New Agers are actively against organised Christianity, but some favour heretical variants such as Gnosticism. Almost any pre-Christian religious tradition has followers in the New Age camp. o Divination, especially Tarot, I-Ching, and Western and Chinese Astrology. o Green politics, especially the more extreme and mystical "deep green" movements. o Flying saucers. o "Alternative" health (see the earlier section). o Vegetarianism. o Pacifism. o Conspiracy theories to explain why the rest of the world does not follow the same beliefs. o Rejection of science and logic as tools for understanding the universe. A reliance on feelings and intuition as guides to action. o Pseudo-scientific jargon. New Agers talk about "rebalancing energy fields" and "vibrational frequencies". These sound vaguely scientific but in fact have no meaning at all. Bear in mind that not all of these are bad just because New Age people follow them. And by the same token, a person who follows one strand of New Age belief may not follow any others. Many people are of the belief that Satanism and New Age are synonymous. This is incorrect. Many (probably most) people involved in New Age religions *do not* believe in Heaven, Hell, the Christian God, the Christian Devil or any other purely Christian construct. The equation Paganism = Satanism comes from the history of Christianity. As the Church spread through Europe it asserted its authority by banning any competing religions. Since the Catholic Church was the exclusive holder of the Truth, it followed that any competing religion was False, and must therefore be an attempt by Satan to mislead humanity. Hence anyone following another religion was doing the work of Satan. For more information on these ideas, check out the alt.pagan FAQ. 7.2: What is the Gaia hypothesis? --------------------------------- There are several versions. The following taxonomy was suggested by James Kirchner in "Scientists on Gaia": * Influential Gaia: the biota has a substantial influence over certain aspects of the abiotic world * Coevolutionary Gaia: the biota influences the abiotic environment, and the latter influences the evolution of the biota by Darwinian processes. * Homeostatic Gaia: the interplay between biota and environment is characterized by stabilizing negative feedback loops. * Teleological Gaia: the atmosphere is kept in homeostasis not just by the biosphere, but in some sense _for_ the biosphere. * Optimizing Gaia: the biota manipulates its environment for the purpose of creating biologically favorable conditions for itself. I'd say no one disputes Influential Gaia, and no serious scientist supports Optimizing Gaia (though some of Lovelock's earlier remarks tend in that direction). Most of the scientific debate surrounds Coevolutionary and Homeostatic Gaia. Some point to Le Chatelier's principle (a system in equilibrium, when disturbed, reacts to as to tend to restore the original equilibrium). However the ice ages suggest that the Earth is not in long-term equilibrium. References: For a range of interesting perspectives on the Gaia hypothesis, see the SF novel "Earth" by David Brin. James Lovelock, "Ages of Gaia", W. W. Norton, 1988. "Scientists on Gaia", ed. by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston, MIT Press 1991. The latter book is a collection of papers presented at an American Geophysical Union Symposium in 1988. Most are technical, but the introductory papers are eminently readable. The whole range of scientific opinion is displayed, from Lovelock and Margulis to critics such as James Kirchner. 7.3: Was Nostradamus a prophet? ------------------------------- No. His supporters are very good at predicting events after the fact, often relying on doubtful translations of the original French to bolster their case. But they have had absolutely no success at predicting the future. Up until a few years ago most Nostradamus books were predicting a nuclear war between America and the USSR. None of them predicted the breakup of the Soviet block. Nostradamus was a Protestant in a time and place when the Inquisition was torturing and burning heretics. To avoid their attention, Nostradamus couched his political letters to other Protestants in obscure symbolism. It is these writings that are now being reinterpreted as prophecy, despite straightforward interpretations which link them to the time Nostradamus wrote them. If you try hard enough, you can find connections between the symbols and numbers used by Nostradamus and almost anything else, particularly if you allow multi-lingual puns and rhymes. A good general reference on Nostradamus is: The Mask of Nostradamus James Randi Charles Scribner's Sons ISBN 0-684-19056-7 BF1815.N8R35 1990 This is now available from Prometheus in paperback. 7.4: Does astrology work? ------------------------- No. A number of studies have been done which have failed to find any predictive power in astrology. Psychologists have also done studies showing that people will agree with almost any statement made about them provided that it is a mild compliment. Hence testimonials and personal impressions about how accurate a horoscope is are not evidence that astrology works. See also section 0.9 on cold reading. One report about research into astrology is: Carlson, Shawn. (1985) "A double-blind test of astrology", Nature, 318 (Dec. 5), 419-425. Arguments against this position can be found in the alt.astrology FAQ. 7.4.1: Could astrology work by gravity? --------------------------------------- Some people argue that we are affected by the gravity of the planets (just as tides are caused by the gravity of the Moon and Sun), and that this is the connection between the motion of the planets and mundane events on Earth. Leaving aside the fact that astrology doesn't work (see above), gravity is simply too weak to do this. Gravitational force on a mass (such as a human being) decreases with the square of the distance to the other mass. But the Earth is affected just as strongly by the other mass, and accelerates slightly towards it. So the net effect on us is nil. What is important is the difference in gravity between the two sides of the mass. This decreases with the *third* power of the distance (i.e. very fast) but increases with the distance between the near and far sides. Hence the Moon and Sun cause tides because the Earth is very large. But the difference in gravity between one end of a human and the other is absolutely minuscule. Also, if this were the mechanism behind astrology then the most significant thing in astrology would be the position of the Moon, with the time of day coming second (as it is for tides). The position of the planets would be completely irrelevant because they are so much further away than the Moon and so much smaller than the Sun. 7.4.2: What is the `Mars Effect'? --------------------------------- French scientist Michael Gauquelin has discovered an apparent correlation between the position of some planets at the time of birth and the career followed as an adult. The strongest correlation is between the time when Mars rises on the day of birth and athletic prowess. However: o The Effect seems to come and go depending on exactly what the sample population is. Most of the controversy seems to revolve around who did what to which sample populations. o Nothing found by Gauqelin bears any resemblance to classical astrology, so claims that Gauqelin has somehow "validated" astrology are bogus. One of CSICOPs earliest investigations was the Mars Effect. Unfortunately there is evidence that CSICOP failed to play by the rules. For more information, see Michel Gauquelin, _Neoastrology: A Copernican Revolution_, 1991, N.Y.: Viking Arkana, was, I believe, his last book. Patrick Curry, "Research on the Mars Effect," _Zetetic Scholar_ #9, pp. 34-53. This is followed by a number of critical commentaries, which continue in _Zetetic Scholar_ #s 10 and 11. Curry's article and Richard Kammann's article in _ZS_ #10 are the most detailed and reliable sources of information on CSICOP's examination of Gauquelin. You should, of course, also read the U.S. test reports in the Winter 1979 _Skeptical Inquirer_--pay closest attention to Dennis Rawlins' report, which correctly criticizes both the main CSICOP report and Gauquelin's report. Also of great importance is Abell, Kurtz, and Zelen's "Reappraisal" of the Mars effect study in the Spring 1983 _Skeptical Inquirer_, and Suitbert Ertel's "Update on the 'Mars Effect'" in the Winter 1992 _SI_. You can obtain back issues of the _Zetetic Scholar_ from Marcello Truzzi, Dept. of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197. I suspect that issues 9, 10, and 11 are now available only in photocopied form. In 1987 they were $8 each. 7.4.3: But couldn't there be some undiscovered connection between ----------------------------------------------------------------- people and planets? ------------------- Well of course there *could* be. There *could* be an invisible snorg reading this over your shoulder right now (don't look round). If there was repeatable evidence that astrology worked then scientists would look into it. 7.5: What is Kirlian Photography? --------------------------------- [Information from a posting by Dave Palmer <dpalmer@csulb.edu>] The technique involves applying a high-frequency, high-voltage electrical source (such as from a Tesla coil) to a subject. The source is also very low-current, so the subject does not get electrocuted (it's the current in electricity that does the harm, not the voltage). When this is done, an "aura" of lightning-like electrical discharges forms around the subject. This field is visible to the naked eye (in a dark room, anyway), and may be photographed. Adherents of Kirlian photography claim that this field is some sort of "life energy" which may indicate things about the subject, such as health, psychic ability, and so forth. They claim that Kirlian photography sometimes shows the "phantom effect." That is, if a limb is amputated from the subject (or, less gruesomely, if a piece is torn off a leaf), that the field will still show the missing piece for a time, because its "life energy" is still there. There is no truth to the claims that it shows any sort of "aura" or "life energy." It is merely a coronal discharge, complete with ozone production. The most damaging argument against the "life energy" claim is that Kirlian photography works on ANY subject that conducts electricity, even completely lifeless metal, or synthetic sponges soaked in salt water. The field produced jumps around quite a bit. Because the shape of the field changes, it can occasionally appear to outline non-existent areas of the subject, hence the phantom effect. Dave Palmer reports producing the phantom effect with tin foil about as often with leaves. Far more often, he got false phantom effects, that is, pictures of pieces of the subject that had never existed. Strange Machines: Free Energy and Anti-Gravity ============================================== 8.1: Why don't electrical perpetual motion machines work? --------------------------------------------------------- Electrical perpetual motion machinists usually present a machine that causes a small battery to generate a huge amount of power. The most common problem here is that the "huge amount of power" was incorrectly measured. AC power measurements are tricky; you can't just multiply the voltage and current, because they may be out of phase. Thus, measuring 10 Volts and 10 Amps could indicate anything from 0 to 100 Watts, depending on the power factor. In addition, most AC meters expect a sinusoidal wave; if they are given some other wave they may be totally wrong. A simple argument against these machines is; "If they can provide so much energy, why do they need the battery to keep going?" 8.2: Why don't mechanical perpetual motion machines work? --------------------------------------------------------- Mechanical perpetual motion machines depend on rising and descending weights. The problem is that the amount of energy that you get out of a descending weight is exactly the same amount that it took to raise the weight in the first place: gravity is said to be a "conservative" force. So no matter what the weights do, you can't get energy out. 8.3: Why don't magnetic perpetual motion machines work? ------------------------------------------------------- Magnetic motors have a clever arrangement of magnets which keeps the motor rotating forever. Not surprisingly, whenever someone tries to build one, the motor rotates for a while and then stops -- this is usually attributed to the magnets "wearing out". These motors usually rely on using magnets as low-friction bearings, meaning the "motor" can coast for a long time, but it doesn't supply any power. Magnetism is like gravity; you can store potential energy and get it back, but you can't get more energy no matter what you try. 8.4: Magnets can levitate. Where is the energy from? ----------------------------------------------------- Levitating magnets do not require energy, any more than something resting on a table requires energy. Energy is the capacity for doing work. Work can be measured by force times distance. Although the magnets are exerting a force the levitated object is stationary, so the magnets aren't supplying any energy. 8.5: But its been patented! --------------------------- So what? Patent offices will not grant a patent on a "perpetual motion machine" (some just require a working model) but if you call it a "vacuum energy device" and claim that it gets its energy from some previously unknown source then you can probably get a patent. Patent offices are there to judge whether something has been invented before, not whether it will work. The ban on devices labelled "perpetual motion" is a special case because the patent officers dislike being cited as some sort of approval by con-men. 8.6: The oil companies are conspiring to suppress my invention -------------------------------------------------------------- This is a conspiracy theory. See the entry on these in section 0. In most of the US the utility companies are *required by law* to buy your excess electricity if you produce your own. If you've got an energy machine, build it in your basement, phase match it to the line, and enjoy. 8.7: My machine gets its free energy from <X> --------------------------------------------- A number of machines have been proposed which are not "perpetual motion" machines in the sense of violating the law of conservation of energy. Mostly these are based on bogus science. One inventor claims that atoms of copper wire are being converted to energy in accordance with Einstein's "e=mc^2". However he fails to explain what causes this transformation and how this energy is converted into electrical energy rather than gamma rays or heat. 8.8: Can gyroscopes neutralise gravity? --------------------------------------- Gyroscopes (or gyros) are a favorite of "lift" machine inventors because many people have come across them and they behave rather oddly. However there is nothing all that mysterious about the behaviour of gyros. You can use Newtonian physics to explain them. Briefly, if you imagine a bit of metal on the edge of a spinning gyro, then to turn the gyro you have to stop the bit of metal moving in its current direction and start it moving in another direction. To do this when it is moving fast you have to push it rather hard. Nothing about this makes the thing get any lighter (in fact to be pedantic, the gyro gets very slightly heavier when it spins, in accordance with Einstein's theory of relativity.) 8.9: My prototype gets lighter when I turn it on ------------------------------------------------ Weighing something which is vibrating on ordinary scales is a sure way of getting a wrong answer. The vibration from the machine combines with "stiction" in the scales to give a false reading. As a result the weight reductions reported for such machines are always close to the limits of accuracy of the scales used. 8.10: Can magnets improve fuel efficiency or descale pipes? ----------------------------------------------------------- Both of these questions come around fairly regularly. Some companies sell magnets which clip around pipes. Sometimes they are sold for use in hard water areas, where they are supposed to prevent the buildup of limescale. On other occasions they are sold for cars, where they are supposed to increase fuel efficiency. Neither of these claims has ever been substantiated by careful testing, and there is no theoretical explanation for the supposed effects. The advertisers try to make it sound like there is, but its actually just pseudo-scientific eyewash. Note that in some cases installing the fuel magnets according to the instructions *will* give increased fuel efficiency. This is because the instructions tell you to adjust the carburettor. The result is that the engine runs leaner than it was designed to, causing higher production of nitrous oxides and a shorter life. The magnet has nothing to do with it. If this worked then car companies would install it themselves and hence sell more cars. AIDS ==== 9.1: What about these theories on AIDS? --------------------------------------- There are two AIDS theories that often appear in sci.skeptic. The first is Strecker's theory that the CIA invented HIV by genetic engineering; the second is Duesberg's theory that HIV has nothing to do with AIDS. The sci.med.aids FAQ has more information about all these theories. 9.1.1: The Mainstream Theory ---------------------------- The generally accepted theory is that AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). There are two different versions of HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2. These viruses are believed, on the basis of their genetic sequences, to have evolved from the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), with HIV-2 being much more similar to SIV. Several years after the initial HIV infection, the immune system is weakened to the point where opportunistic infections occur, resulting in the syndrome of AIDS. A good reference for more information on the "mainstream" view of AIDS is: The Science of AIDS : readings from Scientific American magazine. New York : W.H. Freeman, c1989. 9.1.2: Strecker's CIA Theory ---------------------------- Strecker's theory is that the CIA made HIV in the 1970's by combining bovine leukemia virus (BLV) and sheep visna virus (OLV). The evidence for this theory is that the government was looking at biological warfare around then, and that there are some structural similarities between HIV and BLV and visna. The evidence against this theory is: a: We didn't have the biotechnology back then for the necessary gene splicing. (But maybe the CIA has secret advanced technology?) b: The genetic sequences for HIV, SIV, BLV, and OLV are freely available (e.g. from genbank). You can look at them and compare them yourself. The HIV sequence is totally different from BLV and OLV, but is fairly similar to SIV, just as the scientists say. There used to be a third point here: that the earliest documented AIDS case dated back to 1959. See question 9.2. One school of thought holds that the "AIDS was a U.S. biological warfare experiment" myth was extensively spread as part of a dezinformatsiya campaign by Department V of the Soviet KGB (their `active measures' group). They may not have invented the premise (Soviet disinformation doctrine favored legends originated by third parties), but they added a number of signature details such as the name of the supposed development site (usually Fort Meade in Maryland) which still show up in most retellings. According to a defector who was once the KGB chief rezident in Great Britain, the KGB promulgated this legend through controlled sources in Europe and the Third World. The Third World version (only) included the claim that HIV was the result of an attempt to build a "race bomb", a plague that would kill only non-whites. Also see the question in section 0 about Conspiracy Theories. 9.1.3: Duesberg's Risk-Group Theory ----------------------------------- Duesberg's theory is: HIV is a harmless retrovirus that may serve as a marker for people in AIDS high-risk groups. AIDS is not a contagious syndrome caused by one conventional virus or microbe. AIDS is probably caused by conventional pathogenic factors: administration of blood transfusions or drugs, promiscuous male homosexual activity associated with drugs, acute parasitic infections, and malnutrition. Drugs such as AZT promote AIDS, rather than fight it. His theory is explained in detail in "Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome: Correlation but not Causation", Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA V86 pp.755-764, (Feb. 1989). Virtually the entire scientific community considers Duesberg's AIDS theory to be unsupportable, although he was a respected researcher before he proposed it. There is no suggestion that his theories are the result of a political agenda or homophobia. Details of the debate can be found in published rebuttals to Duesberg, such as in Nature V345 pp.659-660 (June 21, 1990), and in Duesberg's debate with Blattner, Gallo, Temin, Science V241 pp.514-517 (1988). Also see the sci.med.aids FAQ. 9.2: What About the Sailor with AIDS in 1959? --------------------------------------------- (The following information is from The Independent, 24 March 1995) There is now good reason to think that the evidence for this case was fraudulent. The patient was David Carr, a 25 year old man. Most reports describe him as a sailor, but in fact his only known trip abroad was during his national service, when he visted Gibralter aboard HMS Whitby for two weeks. It is possible he visited Tangier at this time, but there is no evidence either way. There is also no evidence that he was gay (although firm evidence would have led to his arrest). Carr died on 31 August 1959 in Manchester Royal Infirmary, almost certainly of an immune deficiency. His case was written up in The Lancet of 29 October 1960 by Trevor Stretton, John Leonard (his doctors) and George Williams (the pathologist). It was just a minor medical mystery. Then in the late eighties, Williams sent samples of tissue from Carr's body to his hospital's virology unit to be tested for AIDS. They tested positive. The test was repeated with a blind control. Still positive. The doctors went public with a short letter in the Lancet on 7 July 1990. In 1992 Professor David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre in New York asked for tissue samples from Carr in order to sequence the viral DNA. He succeeded, but found that the sequence was identical to strains circulating in 1990. Further checks revealed that the tissue sample was from a recently deceased person, and that other samples, alledgedly also from Carr but with no sign of the virus, were actually from a different person. At the very least these facts cast serious doubt on the accuracy of the diagnosis of AIDS in David Carr. They also give strong reason to suspect a case of scientific fraud. You Must Remember This ====================== 10.1 What is "False Memory Syndrome ?" --------------------------------------- [Contributed by Todd Stark <stark@dwovax.enet.dec.com>. Todd describes this text as a "first pass" at this section. If anyone has any more authoritative information then please send it to me.] There is currently no such standard medical diagnosis in the U.S. as "False Memory Syndrome." "False Memory Syndrome" is a term coined by a support and advocacy group based in Philadelphia, Pa. in the U.S., the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc., to publicize and dramatize the plight of parents, alleged pedophiles, and other adults who feel they have been unjustly accused of child abuse. The initial membership of the FMS consisted of 202 families who had contacted psychologist Ralph Underwager, a frequent advocate for accused sex offenders. The current executive director is Pamela Freyd, PhD.. The basic premise of the FMS idea is that : under conditions of therapy, a child's (person's) recollection of past events may be distorted, even radically, and that convincing evidence of psychological trauma and detailed false testimony against an innocent person may be _manufactured_ by the (unwitting) facilitation of a therapist, who is motivated to find abuse. Underwager's work has been criticized on the same basis as criticism of the FMS itself, that he appears biased against children alleging sexual abuse (Salter). This is of course met by the symmetric claim from FMS advocates and others, that some percentage of therapists seem to specialize in finding abuse, and are unfairly biased against the accused adults. Various examples of popular psychology literature are often quoted to support (and sometimes symbolize) this contention. _The_Courage_to_Heal_ is an example of this genre, suggesting that forgotten abuse is so likely that any woman who has any suspicion at all of having been abused probably was. The issue around "False Memory" is then the degree to which the therapist may have (unwittingly or deliberately) contributed to a remembrance of serious abuse which did not occur, or may have exaggerated the incidence or severity of the abusive behavior. There seems to be sufficient evidence, both from clinical tradition and from experimental data on human memory, to establish that there is a possibility for the client of a strongly motivated therapist to be influenced by the expectations of the therapist, even to the point of forgetting or distorting important life events, or manufacturing them. (See examples in Goldstein, 1992; general comments by Loftus, 1993; and descriptions by Ofshe and Tavris cited in the references). There is also evidence that people do forget unpleasant incidents which they could not integrate with the rest of their lives. There is no context in which to place the experience, and thinking about it is unpleasant, so it gets "walled off" and forgotten. The use of hypnosis has been particularly controversial since it involves an unusually intimate form of both verbal and non-verbal communication. In hypnosis, the client is highly motivated to respond with historical reconstructions at the request of the therapist, even if they do not have sufficient details to reconstruct past events accurately. This is related to what is called the 'response criterion problem' in experimental hypnosis research. (Klatzky and Erdely, 1985). Vividly imagined events under hypnosis can be difficult or impossible to distinguish from real life. It is worth noting that other memories "recovered" under hypnosis have included past lives and UFO abductions. While this does not prove that all such memories are false, it does suggest that they cannot be relied upon. Some experimental research also appears to confirm the potential for hypnotic suggestion to radically alter even the ongoing sensory perception of good hypnotic subjects (Spiegel, 1989). Canadian Psychiatrist William Sargant (see his work on political and religious conversion, Sargant, 1959) also did some classic work in which he demonstrated the therapeutic value of "abreaction," or in this case, vividly imagined 'false' events, with the help of hypnosis or sometimes ethyl ether. It is sometimes claimed that distortions introduced with the help of hypnotic suggestion can be picked up with standardized tests. A test for whether cult members had been "brainwashed" was used with some claimed success (Verdier, 1977). More recently, research into picking up stable dissociative tendencies has shown some promise. There is no known reliable way at this time to verify whether a particular recollection was actually introduced as a so-called "false memory." The most promising research in this area seems to point to the possibility that we may someday be able to more reliably pick out the 'fantasy prone,' at least as a relative number on a scale, but this still leaves the question open as to cause and effect. Did a severe early trauma provoke the need for escape into a rich inner fantasy world, or was the remembrance of a traumatic past solely the result of a therapist taking advantage of "fantasy proneness ?" So, one of the more useful functions of an advocacy group such as the FMS is to educate the public to the possibility that even the most real seeming and vivid memories could possibly have been fabricated or exaggerated by interaction with a therapist. One of the less useful results of a group like the FMS is to cast aspersions and additional frustrating doubt on the claims of an already desperate child who is having a difficult time understanding and recovering from a traumatic experience. References : Klatzky and Erdely, 1985, "The response criterion problem in tests of hypnosis and memory," International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis , 33, 246-257. Ofshe, Richard, 1992, "Inadvertent Hypnosis During Interrogation," International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis , 11:125-155. Goldstein, Eleanor, 1992, Confabulations , Boca Raton, Fla:Social Issues Research Series Loftus, Elizabeth, June 27,1993, "You Must Remember This ... ... or do you ? How Real are Repressed Memories ?" Washington Post . Ofshe, Richard and Ethan Watters, (March, 1993), "Making Monsters," Society . Tavris, Carole, (Jan 3,1993), "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine," N.Y. Times Book Review. Persinger MA. "Neuropsychological profiles of adults who report 'sudden remembering' of early childhood memories: implications for claims of sex abuse and alien visitation/abduction experiences." Perceptual & Motor Skills. 75(1):259-66, 1992 Aug. Wilson and Barber, "The Fantasy Prone Personality : Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena," in Imagery ,Current Theory, Research , and Application , from Wiley Press, 1983. Paul A. Verdier, "Brainwashing and the Cults, an expose on capturing the human mind," 1977, Wilshire Books. William Sargant, "Battle for the Mind, a physiology of conversion and brainwashing," 1959, N.Y.: Harper and Row John Marks, "The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate,' The CIA and Mind Control," 1979, N.Y.: New York Times Book Co. pp. 190 D. Spiegel et al, 1989, "Hypnotic alteration of somatosensory perception," American Journal of Psychiatry "A conversation with Pamela Freyd, Ph.D. Co-founder and executive director, False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc" by David Calof in Treating Abuse Today, Vol 3(3), 25-39 10.2: How Can I Contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation? ------------------------------------------------------------- There is a web page at: http://iquest.com/~fitz/fmsf/ You may also wish to read the relevant newsgroups, especially alt.sexual-abuse.recovery. -- --------------------------------+--------------------------------- Paul Johnson | You are lost in a maze of twisty Email: Paul@treetop.demon.co.uk | little standards, all different. paul.johnson@gecm.com |