Weird Newsapalooza!

New Sounds Sciencey post is about How to Think About Weird News

Every day, I scour the Internet for news. Not just any news. Weird news. What bizarre thing was seen, heard, or found today?

This interest in the unexplained, mysterious, and Fortean is a perpetual thing for me. The first books I ever recall picking out as favorites were about ghosts, monsters, and UFOs. But the qualification for my interest was that I cared about them only because I thought they might be real.

I began a website to highlight these paranormal and anomalous news stories. While there are a lot of strange news feeds and news aggregators that do this, mine is different. I didn’t just want to share these stories so you can pass them along your virtual circles. I wanted to discuss these stories. What about them was true? What was missing? Why did people latch onto certain ones and enthusiastically share them with everyone they knew, even if they were almost certainly hoaxes or exaggerations? One of my goals was for my website to show up in online searches for these topics so perhaps interested readers would stumble upon a more thoughtful analysis than what was found in comment sections after the news stories or on Internet forums.

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Buell and PRS to offer classes for the credulous

I once went to a presentation by the Paranormal Research Society, held at a local Pennsylvania State University campus. It was not sponsored (nor endorsed) by the university but by a student activities group. I chuckled softly to myself when Ryan Buell flubbed information about some very famous “ghost” photographs. His background on parapsychological history seemed thin. I was thoroughly unimpressed. (I’ve since watched the show and was even more unimpressed.) I’m sure he’s better now, being under the tutelage of Lorraine Warren, clairvoyant/demon enthusiast. PRS has announced that in response to tremendous public requests, they will be offering educational webinars.

“PRS will begin hosting and offering classes and lectures on paranormal research and various topics through the means of online webinars. PRS will offer both individual lectures and web courses, as well as invite outside experts/researchers to offer classes.”

Color me skeptical about the seriousness of such a venture…
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Well done, Skeptics

I’m quite pleased with this exchange at the PA skeptical site Keystone Society for Rational Inquiry. A guest poster noticed an article in the local paper about a new alternative therapy – Himalayan salt cave – and looked into it. What was found can benefit lots of people and can assist people in make more informed choices.

Skeptics say “what”? This “salt cave” stuff obviously rings bells that go “woo woo”. And, well it should. There were some obvious issues about credentials and research and consequences. Check out the comments to see how proponents argue for their POV when the criticism may take away from their businesses’ credibility. This exchange is quite full of logical fallacies which I can spot but am not very good at labeling. Read More »

The art of scaring you over nothing: aquifers cause cancer

There are some ideas that are so silly that one REALLY wishes they didn’t have to be addressed at all.

An article appearing here was my introduction to a new, very confused and counterintutive concept: aquifers cause cancer and health problems for humans. Mr. David Reecher, who runs the website Aquifers and Health Institute, has undertaken a public campaign to warn of the hazards of aquifers. When I read the news article, I laughed, thinking it was from The Onion. The statements displayed such ignorant of how nature works that it HAD to be satire. I underestimated human imagination; it was real. I was compelled to investigate this one further.

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The emotionally and cognitively satisfying anecdote

I used to have a cat. That cat was pretty mean. He hated other people and animals. He messed up my house. I’ll never have another cat because they don’t make good house pets.

The little story above is an anecdote. It has characters, reflects a real-life experience in a narrative form and is intended to provide you with “facts”, an opinion and my reasoning for the conclusion I’ve made there at the end.

Did it convince you? Perhaps – if you are open to the idea that cats are bad pets. Is it generalizable to the entire population of people considering pets? No. It’s simply one person’s experience with a cat.Read More »

Sounds like quackery

In my series Sham Inquiry, I spotlighted three examples of fields that sound a lot like science but have critical failures. Attempts to don the trappings of science are most irritating when they fool people into thinking it is real, cutting-edge science. I found more examples from the recent Newsweek article on Oprah’s promotion of quackery. Dr. David Cooper, a professor of endocrinology at Johns Hopkins medical school, a specialist in thyroid disease, sounded a bit perturbed at the antics of the Oprah-favorite Dr. Northrup:

“The problem is that this all has the aura of being scientific when a lot of it is wrong, or not proven
or just utter hogwash,” Cooper says. “No wonder it sounds very credible to the patients, and in my
opinion, that’s even worse. If it was all complete rubbish, people would be more likely to see it for
what it really is.”

Also mentioned is hormone therapy that confounds the term “natural” and the Law of Attraction utter bullshit labeled “very, very scientific” by those that hawk The Secret. If you have to point that out, it’s probably not.

Mix real scientific terms with utter gobbledygook and people eat it up. They can’t tell the difference. Much of this sounds very hokey to skeptics who are sensitized to pseudoscience red flags but not to the millions of sheeple who follow Oprah faithfully, without question. I suspect some of this lack of critical thinking can be reduced through the education process, however, people like to have charismatic leaders to follow and to think for them.

I applaud Newsweek for standing up to Oprah. It’s the number 1 emailed article in their “Life” section today. I encourage everyone whose Mom watches Oprah to send her this article.

Ghost Hunting – Sham Inquiry

Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.

Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Read More »

Pretend science

Playing Pretend Science

In order to be technical, like science, pseudoscientists engage in a method of data gathering that is not haphazard or lazy. Intricate collection and analysis is often a part of pseudoscientific activity. They may produce enormous bodies of work. Commitment to a cause can prompt “energetic intellectual effort” [1]. The motives and ‘sciencey’ feel of the whole endeavor wins over those nonscientists who can’t recognize that it simply fails to meet scientific standards. Yet, for all the diligent work, the accumulated evidence can still amount to nothing of substance.
The public is happy to admire science as long as they don’t have to understand it deeply. Sham inquiry plays to the admiration of science by the public. A lack of familiarity with how science is supposed to work is a major reason why the public has trouble recognizing counterfeit science. Add an ‘-ology’ to the end of whatever you study and it acts like a toupe of credibility – to hide the lack of substance. The public is vulnerable to pseudoscience that resembles real inquiry and genuine knowledge.
The following are three examples of current pseudosciences. They all don the accoutrements of science without delivering the substance [2]. The field of cryptozoology is the likeliest of the three to hold the interest of real scientists these days because it is associated with the genuine fields of zoology, anthropology and wildlife biology and chock-full of amateur scientists. Ghost hunting is predominantly nonscientists who enjoy using technology and the new view that it gives them on the world. Creationism is a entirely different beast grown completely from religious ideology and dressed in a cheap and transparent scientific costume. This sham does not even fool courts of law but it continues to exert tremendous ideological force on the public.

Ghost hunting
[1] Haack, S. (1995). “Concern for Truth and Why it Matters”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 58.
[2] Bunge, M. (1995).“In Praise of Tolerance To Charlatanism in Academia”. The Flight from Science and Reason (1996). P. R. Gross, N. Levitt, M.W. Lewis, New York Academy of Sciences, p. 104.

Back to Sham Inquiry contents page.