You were OK until the part on acupuncture: Book review

undercoverPhilThe Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies and Delusions
by M. Philips

I’m just going to do a quick review on this book which started out promising, lost me in the middle, and ended on an up note. You may be able to pull something valuable out of it, as I did, or you may end up soured and give up.

The beginning is a walk through how we are all hostages of our beliefs. This book, states the author, is about the obstacles and hazards we face on the road to an accurate view of the world. When Philips first talks about “skeptics”, this is the first “Hmm…” moment, and I was confused. He does not have the same definition of “skeptic” as I do. He considers them general doubters. I consider skeptics as seekers – after the best evidence. Throughout the book, however, Philips does stress the reliability of evidence and why it’s imperative that it be solid and reliable before we can rely upon conclusions. We have to work pretty hard to overcome our natural tendencies to be mistaken in how we gain our knowledge.

He introduces the concept of “knowledge machines”. I didn’t like this, it felt like an incorrect analogy, too mechanical. It is referenced throughout.

The book does not flow, heading into descriptions of post-modernism (it seems like “skeptics” in his sense are considered po-mo, contrasted with rationalists), taking a diversion into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of intuition, talking about doctors and base rates of conditions – a worthy discussion but not explained well enough for me to grasp the big picture. There are good portions about memory and perception. Unfortunately, that is marred by a glaring misspelling of the phenomenon of pareidolia as “periodolia”.

There is a great concept the author relates about hearing bad science – it’s like listening to music out of tune. So, this book sounded like a week old garage band as the author describes how acupuncture is a sound treatment, a shame scientists were so slow to accept it. This surprising take goes against the rest of the book’s call for sound evidence! The justification for acceptance of acupuncture is hollow and, for me, just kills credibility. After this point, I really can’t bring myself to be interested in the sections that follow, about behavioralism and economics, which run on too long about subjects that don’t plug in well to the premise of the book.

There are certainly gems within that I wrote down and hope to use again, such as his description of post-modernism as a “litany of epistemic pessimism,” and the ending which declares that debunkers risk a lot – they are heroes.

It really is too bad the entire book was not solid.

Trouble bubbles between paranormalists and skeptics

Yesterday, paranormal advocates and skeptical paranormal researchers clashed over an old but complex issue. Former television Ghost Hunter, Amy Bruni, posted on Facebook that she wished skeptics would go do something more productive than “constantly bash” what they (paranormalists) do. She thinks the skeptic “cause” is to take on people with harmless beliefs different from their own.

I admit I reacted badly to her call to “take a little look at yourself”  – it was inaccurate and poorly worded because she was on the defensive, reacting out of emotion. Then, she did clarify somewhat to tone down the harshness but her view was still off the mark.

There were very many threads of thought that could be spun off this kerfuffle, but I will make just two points as a self-identified practical skeptic who has studied paranormal topics for decades.

First, I have every right to call out any questionable claim that is being presented as fact. I’ve written about this topic before. A few years back, I was on good terms with some paranormally-inclined people until I pointed out problems with their positions. Then I was told to get off my high horse and go back to my cubicle or my “lonely room.” Speaking for myself, but assuming that others like me agree, my intent was not to be mean, I was digging for accuracy. I really want to know, not just believe because it’s comforting or fun. Rarely am I called out on what I say about the science or facts. Instead, “skeptic” is used as a slur and I’m told to shut up or go away. Proponents of fringe ideas are annoyed by skeptical probing: we ask for specifics, question assumptions, and are keenly aware of the lack of good quality evidence for their pet beliefs. Skeptics make believers feel uncomfortable. Well, pushing boundaries into the discomfort zone is how we learn. It can go both ways.

Second, there is no endeavor that should be given a pass from critical thought and commentary, especially those that are at odds with well-established existing knowledge. Skeptics are told that, if we are so keen on advancing science, instead of harassing ghost hunters, Bigfooters and UFO chasers, we should work on curing cancer, developing renewable energy, and cleaning up the environment. Well, many of us DO such work every day – my daily job is in environmental regulation. There is no justification for the “why don’t you go do something more productive” ploy. There will always be the argument for why X is more important than Y. There will always be another X, it’s subjective. Everyone has their own interests or causes they feel passionately about. Knowledge and expertise is personal and we can pursue what we like. The exact same argument applies to paranormalists so it’s not prudent to ever use it.

Finally, there are a few interesting parallels between serious skeptical advocates and serious paranormalists:

  1. We love these subjects, we want to find out more.
  2. We want to help people.
  3. We think our task is important to society, not frivolous.
  4. We don’t like rude, know-it-all jerks.
  5. Our values in these areas are an integral part of who we are, how we define ourselves.

There is common ground. We rarely meet upon it.

Skeptics interested in paranormal topics might attempt to be more open to listening and understanding those who have had anomalous experiences. Those who espouse extraordinary claims would do well to up their evidence quality and get a grasp on what skepticism really is and why it’s important. Things might get interesting then. Imagine a situation where we could air our grievances without contempt and have a productive discussion. I’d like to be part of that conversation.

For more on the troubled relationship and communication fails between skeptics and paranormalists, check out my pieces from Sound Sciencey:

Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

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50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.

The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

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It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

Doubt and About for Winter 2015 BRrrrrr

Oh man, it’s winter. Where is the sun?

I’ve been busy reading and watching monster movies and documentaries. I’m going to write up some notes from my readings and share some gems.

In an update from last D&A, I’ve closed down my public Facebook page for now. I’m more interested in working in the background. Speaking of that, I am still maintaining the social media accounts for the JREF but am focusing on helping to organize TAM#13 for 2015 this summer in Las Vegas. That’s a tremendous job but I’m absorbing what it means to put together a major conference event. I’m sure not doing the heavy lifting. But, people are so often quick to criticize without knowing what it entails.

I’m getting more and more jaded with silly ghost and monster stories in the news. So, the content on Doubtful News has been less frequent. I’m becoming more picky about what I put up there. I no longer can manage to list every big questionable claim made in the media. It’s often so ridiculous, I get a bit depressed I have to even mention that’s portrayed VERY inaccurately and quite dubious of a story. Or, it takes a considerable amount of effort to research and digest a story (like the latest Pew research on science and the public). I didn’t expect to get burnt out from it but, now that I think about it, it’s inevitable. Meanwhile, I’ve had another new project idea.

I’ve started the site Practical Skepticism. It’s what I think the public needs – to see how critical thinking processes can help ANYONE make better decisions in life. My goal is to show the inherent value of the skeptical process, that it’s not cynical, it’s not just for groups of old, atheist men, and it is tremendously valuable to have as a life skill. 

I’m moving away from aiming efforts at the fractionated, unorganized, “skeptic” community but focusing on everyday useful stuff that can improve society for all ages and lifestyles. If you would like to contribute to Practical Skepticism, drop me a line. I’ll be posting more in the near future when I populate the site with more content. But I sure hope I can get some other contributions posts in these beginning stages.

The public MUST be the audience for the message. I feel very strongly about that; I hope you see why and join me in this effort to refocus the goals of the skeptical community to be education and outreach. My main interest is in the relationship between science and the public. There are many factors involved in science appreciation and acceptance that are separate from the ‘don’t be fooled’ lesson of general skepticism. We have a lot of work to do to make forward strides but according to some thoughtful messages I’ve received, people will get behind such goals and show support.

Coming up on my agenda for face to face outreach this year, besides TAM in July, is the Skeptical Classroom event in March at Northern Arizona University. I’ve never been in Flagstaff so I’m very excited. I’m bursting with ideas for my talk about applying skepticism in the natural sciences classroom. 

I also got my first invitation to speak at a “paranormal” type event – the Albatwitch Festival in Columbia, PA next fall. I wrote about it here. I’m still thinking about how to address what will likely be a crowd of those greatly invested in paranormal beliefs. That will be a challenge. 

Tell me what YOU think. I read all comments posted here even if I don’t make them public.

Deliver me from another ridiculous “demons everywhere” story – Book Review

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A review of Deliver Us from Evil, R. Sarchie with L.C. Cool

deliverI shall cut to the main point. I didn’t set out to read this one. I saw it in the library and it looked like a fast read. It’s important to understand what’s being put out there as “true” stories. As usual, it was the same faith-based nightmare fuel meant to scare people into being more pious and to show that the author’s religion is the one true faith.

Ralph Sarchie is a NYC cop but he has taken on a role to deal with demonic “perps” as well as the genuine human horrors he sees everyday. Demons are criminals, exorcism is the “spiritual equivalent of an arrest”.

A movie of the same name came out last summer. This BBC piece on why exorcisms are so fascinating notes the same fears appeared in many movies about exorcism – a vulnerable child is involved. This is a strong hook likely exaggerated EVEN MORE in a movie that I doubt bears any resemblance to real life.

Also a strong theme is the need to feel that the world has aspects of good and evil and that the former will triumph over the latter. That simple dichotomy, good vs evil, is what this book is all about. It is stories from one guy who, with the help of others including the crack(pot) demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren [red flag], does “the Work” (of the Lord). Pre-enlightenment diabolic drama set in modern crime-ridden times – that’s what this is.

Sarchie is deeply, DEEPLY steeped in religious belief. His traditional Catholic faith permeates everything. His life revolves around God. He states in the afterword that this book is for people of faith and those paranormal investigators that come across this stuff. It’s not for skeptics who don’t take his belief-based stories at face value. He’s right there. In my opinion, these stories make no sense except in terms of complicated social, economic and psychological problems that are all but impossible to fix in the short term. But the route he takes is to do an exorcism, then pray a lot, (the afflicted should go to church more,) come back for another exorcism and it will probably be OK as long as God is the center of everything.

Possession used to be uncommon, says Sarchie, now these scumbag entities are all over, in our houses and inside our bodies. Why? The occult.

This is such a old, tired, baseless and NAIVE argument. He strongly asserts that Satanists are friggin’ EVERYWHERE you look, trying to recruit kids into their coven. Wearing an occult symbol or reading a grimoire can open you up to demonic forces. The Ouija board is a wicked occult trap and should be outlawed. Non-religious meditation is an invitation to be taken over by evil. There is zero evidence for any of these claims which are based on fear.

The idea that Satanic forces are at work committing crimes is from the Satanic Panic era of the 80s and 90s when cops were taught to recognize work of Satanists. The trouble is, there was no evidence that such organized cults ever existed and carried out these atrocities. But every anomaly was interpreted to be related to this evil cult permeating our wholesome society. Nonsense. All of it.

There have always been occult interests in society (but there hadn’t always been one or more exorcism-themed movies every year to enhance the acceptance). I see Sarchie’s stories as typical anecdotes of people who have a underlying point to make (go to God and to church) and a drive to convince listeners. It’s also not difficult to understand that Sarchie truly does believe he’s encountered supernatural evil many times, even in his own home. That’s his worldview. It is… fantastic. I mean that in the sense of being like fantasy. He states that if you call yourself a Christian, then you must believe the devil is REAL. Really real, not just a metaphor for evil.

All the angels, hierarchies in Heaven, Bible stories, all real.

Satan’s minions? Real.

Poltergeists? Ghosts? Naw, probably demons.

He hates when paranormal investigators fool people into thinking they just have a pesky but harmless noisy ghost. Only a diabolical force can move heavy things. Human ghosts are weak. Parapsychologists and other science-minded people [sneer] are clueless — to “debunk” a devil means that he has succeeded in fooling you that he isn’t real. To deny the devil provides him with power. What a convenient dodge of scientific testing.

In Sarchie’s (or the co-writers) religious self-righteousness, he sometimes claims to know better than the priest. He identifies a serious problem that some priest don’t even believe in the devil. None of this modern Catholicism stuff, only old school tradition applies. However, in a very New Agey twist, Sarchie describes chakras as places of psychic energy in the body. Demons can enter through these.

He uses pieces of the true cross on these spots to annoy the demons into leaving the afflicted. (I couldn’t help but wish for a double blinded study of relics and holy water with controls in an encounter with someone who thinks he is possessed. No science allowed in the realm of the spiritual, though.)

Your aura shows if you are free of sin; he can see its color. A strong aura repels demons. There is no word on where he gets this information from. I’d not heard it before. But I’m wondering how he might explain why atheists don’t seem to get possessed very often…

Other than those outliers, this book is preachy from beginning to end. It contains contradictions and non sequiturs and, frankly, some stuff that is just made up: A woman’s heart disease was brought on by demons in the downstairs apartment! “Still skeptical?” he asks, let me tell you ANOTHER story that is not referenced or documented. This is hardly convincing unless you are already ensconced in the good vs evil belief system.

There is not just one reason or a few quibbles why I find the entire concept of demons, Satan and exorcism un-compelling — there are many and various solid reasons to consider myriad alternative explanations to “demons”, such as illness and psychological conditions. This child-like belief in God and the Devil manifest makes the complicated human life into a comic book, oversimplifying the very natural and difficult trials of modern existence. I feel those who condone exorcisms are more often harming the people they think they are helping. Such unshakeable commitment to a supernatural worldview that has been displaced by natural understanding centuries ago is a tragedy. But, he sure leads a dramatic life, one that I wouldn’t want. I certainly feel sympathy for his victims and even for him to take on other people’s emotional wreckage. I’d love for more support to be made available. However, that recognition does not make demonic possession genuine or justifiable.

The people undergoing the exorcisms in this book are restrained either by cloth ties or by volunteers. Sarchie states the demon must be given “no quarter”, “no mercy”, it must be “forced out”. Here’s where this shit gets dangerous. He briefly mentions the death of Anneliese Michel, as if the devils inside her caused her death instead of the very real torture she endured. He made NO mention of the fact that she was malnourished and dehydrated due to the “rites” of exorcism and her parents and the priest were charged with a crime. I don’t care what deity you subscribe to or not but this is a human being, not a supernatural entity of your imagination. Exorcism is unethical and wrong!

The book ends with DIY prayers. I kid you not.

I don’t recommend this book; I won’t be seeing the movie; I don’t believe in Satan and his associated fiends of Hell. Demons are a creation of the human mind and not “real”.

Or, the devil won with me. You decide. I don’t care. Life goes on, same as yesterday. You damned deluded exorcists — your hatred for the devil and your sanctimonious pomp and exaggeration ruins people’s lives.

Rock and roll and the occult – A Book Review

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Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
by Peter Berbegal (2014)

seasonSaved it from what? I’m not clear. From “sugary teenybopper purgatory”? Meh. I don’t think the “occult” interest was the key aspect. Culture was changing and music reflected this. Pressing our conscious bounds outside the norm is the way of all art and creativity. Perhaps use of occult themes was one convenient path; but it was also widely used for just theatrics and to gain attention.

This book was not as good as I hoped. The subject matter – occult aspects within rock music – is rich with possibilities; every obvious aspect is at least mentioned – Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, the Beatles dabbling in Transcendental Meditation, The Rolling Stones lyrical relationship with Satan, Aleister Crowley’s connections to Jimmy Page (Crowley’s ideas are threaded throughout the book), the hidden meaning in Led Zeppelin albums, the Satanic imagery of heavy metal, alternative spiritual ideas, even Jay Z and the Illuminati symbolism.

But nothing is covered deeply. It’s written in an art-based language instead of what I would have preferred – a historical and sociological framework (surprisingly, since Berbegal is an expert in religion and culture). I just did not enjoy the language he uses. Here’s an example:

“Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipe for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled towards it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was not inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock muscians crafted music that did more than tug at the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them towards transcendence, towards creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.”

Such rumination is fit for the intro and conclusion but not what I wanted to read in the informational body of the text.

I did like the section on David Bowie very much. But several long parts of the book were more about drug use than occult ideas. It seemed to go off on tangents and be missing a strong focus and factual information that I would have preferred. Many music culture fans will find this book pleasing, my personal preference notwithstanding. So, your milage will vary.

Ask a Skeptic: What happens at death?

Reprinted from Huffington Post 9-Aug 2013

What do you think happens when your time runs out [death]? Does it all go black or something else? — R.B.

My short answer is death is the end of consciousness, of existence. I do not believe there is anything beyond — no heaven or hell, no returning of the spirit, no reincarnation. I don’t believe those things because the evidence for those claims is poor. The evidence is strong, however, that our brain is responsible for our “consciousness,” so when the brain is deprived of the means to function, the sense of self is gone as well as our physical functions ceased.

To some people that seems so cold, final, and unsatisfying. It’s none of those things to me. While I don’t place a spiritual meaning on death, I have a humanist view of it. So here is the longer answer.

Continue reading

Ask a Skeptic: What about ghost TV shows?

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I’ve received the following email and was given permission to share it publicly to answer. Minor edits have been made for clarity.

My 13 year old daughter has me interested in TV shows like Ghost Adventures. I’m starting to have a healthy interest in the paranormal. I have always been a complete skeptic. I would say I still am a skeptic, but so many things are hard for me to explain in the field.

Why are there millions of people with their own paranormal stories – UFOs, ghosts sightings, Bigfoot, animal mutilation? Are all these people crazy, mistaken, have bad eyesight?

In Ghost Adventures, the three main hosts of the show seem believable as they investigate. But what seems so very believable are the witnesses. These are very common people, not actors. Their testimonials are truly believable. Are all these witnesses crazy too? They testify with great belief and conviction. Even professional actors could not be so believable.

Please email me back with your vast insight.

Thanks,
D.E.

Hi D.E.:

Thanks so much for writing to me. It’s flattering that you asked for my opinion on this. You say you are a “skeptic” and by thinking about this topic, you certainly are exhibiting some skeptical traits. But since there were a lot of juicy bits in your comments, let’s unpack them.

Continue reading

Book reviews: Fall 2014

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300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.

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