Houdini. Skeptic. (Book Review)

magician spiritsHarry Houdini needs no introduction, but there are several facts that people do not know about this consummate skeptic. That makes this book a must for everyone interested in psychics and paranormal claims. Just the Introduction to this great book floored me. How much we needed Houdini at the time. How much we STILL need a Houdini today.

Houdini was open-minded. He admitted he wanted to believe. He strove to learn if the possibility that one could communicate with the dead was real. In an attempt to convince himself, he had compacts with 14 people for post-death communication. He was sorely disappointed that none ever reached beyond the grave to give him evidence he needed. Meanwhile the “mystifier of mystifiers” (a term disgustingly co-opted by Uri Geller, the unimpressive psychic performer) met all the most famous mediums of his time to test this elusive idea.

“Gladly I would embrace Spiritualism if it could prove its claims, but I am not willing to be deluded by fraudulent impostors of so called psychics…”

In this book, he outlines his adventures with them, how he learned their secrets, and how he applied his knowledge of the tricks the mind can play. He was part of the initial era of psychical research.Read More »

100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong


What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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Should I have been a sociologist?

It was not with conscious intent. It evolved organically. I want to know how and why a group functions the way it does (or doesn’t). First, I studied paranormal investigators, or what I called ARIGs – amateur research and investigation groups. One particular aspect I focused on was how these activities appeared to enhance their lives.  I’ve always been interested in why people believe weird things. I think I understand a bit about why religious, paranormal, and superstitious beliefs play such a dominant role in human society. Of course, there is much left to learn.

Regarding the skeptical community, I started noticing pathologies and problems, groupthink and misplaced focus. Why did this happen and what happens next?

In a Fortean group, I asked about sharing questionable “news” sites – does accuracy matter?

Oops.Read More »

Even the tough ones can be kind

When people think about “Skeptics” (capital ’S’), they often think about James Randi, Joe Nickell, Phil Klass, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, etc. – the tough ones, the ones that did not accept the bullshit being handed out.

Skeptic Trumps by Crispian Jago: http://www.crispian.net/page3/page3.html

I’ve seen many comments aimed in particular against Mr. Randi (who retired from his Foundation this year but is STILL traveling and doing outreach). I think people epitomize Randi as the Leader of all Skepticism because of all he has accomplished and the real contemptible characters of the woo-woo world that he has taken on head to head – Peter Popoff, Uri Geller, Sylvia Browne, even Nostradamus.

But here is a funny thing I wish people would realize… Randi is human and understanding. Ken Frazier reports on the Australian Skeptics convention last November in the March/April 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. In his editorial, (page 4) he relates a comment James Randi gave to a question he was asked — how does one respond to a friend who is deep into nonsense.

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You say closed, I say open with reason

I get emails. People tell me I should be more “open-minded”.

There is that clichéd saying regarding open-mindedness: “Keep an open mind — but not so open that your brain falls out”. This piece of advice is most often said to come from physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988), but also a slew of other more or less famous people, most of them from the field of science: Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, James Oberg, Bertrand Russell, J. Robert Oppenheimer. It’s plausible that they all certainly said it at one time or another because it applies every time one is presented with a fringe or alternative explanation for something. It’s a fine saying.

I’m reminded about my narrow lack of vision (as they see it) when I report about recently deceased mystery mongerers or self-proclaimed miracle workers. Their followers chastise me not only for speaking ill of the dead (I’m sure they were all nice people, but that does not excuse their bad ideas), but that I did not experience their miracles or I fail to understand their work because I’m not thinking “out of the box”.

Here’s one example. Lloyd Pye was committed to the idea that a curiously-shaped skull he had is that of an alien-human hybrid. Called the “star child” skull, Pye promoted the story that this is proof that humans descended from extraterrestrial beings. You can read my post about his death. There is nothing offensive about it. Yet, I got a SLEW of messages telling me how horribly misguided I was. I disagreed with his crackpot ideas. I’m allowed to. The plausibility of it is practically nil. There is no decent evidence in support of it except a nifty sci-fi story. To accept it, we’d have to throw out all of what we know about human history, evolution, and a good bit of well-established physics. Just because of one odd-looking skull? No, thank you. That would be completely irrational.

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Critical Groupthinking

I’ve been thinking a lot about group dynamics lately. In-groups, out-groups, fitting into to groups and falling out of them. I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics in the past few years in skeptical circles.

Working in groups is an important part of many people’s lives. I get tasked to head committees or workgroups and I have a staff that has to work collaboratively on projects. I see groups in my neighborhood and community. And with a teenager and a pre-teen, I see social groups, for better or worse, in operation every day.

With regards to skeptical outreach, I’m curious if coherent groups can be formed with diverse individuals, what might hold us back and what may work to move ahead.

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