Recent Entries in Skeptic

Countless dinosaur bones lie buried in the rocks of South Dakota but the Christians excavating one remote cliff-face were digging not just for reptilian vertebrae but for the hand of God.

With screwdrivers, hammers and shaving brushes for tools, the group was seeking and, as far as it was concerned, unearthed proof that the animals perished not millions of years ago but in Noah's Flood circa 2300 BC.

To these believers in the Bible's literal truth, they are not dinosaurs but "missionary lizards", which are powerful weapons in the battle for young American hearts and minds.

  The Iraqi Example

Humorous and obviously partisan article on how America gave "freedom" to Iraq by way of internet cafés and cell phones. Note some of the easy-to-spot inaccuracies in this commentary, including statement that an internet café was "a place that couldn't have existed before Saddam's fall." It's a fact that internet cafés were around since 2000 in Bathist Iraq (4 years now), under Saddam Hussein (see the BBC article at Also enjoyable is the possibly fictional Chinese character, who has been given a pseudonym to protect his identity. Yet, the author later tells us, "anyone who wonders why America's efforts in Iraq are important need only talk to Mr. Wu."

  Video creates UFO stir

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican Air Force has released footage of what a UFO expert says are 11 invisible unidentified flying objects picked up by an infrared camera as they whizzed around a surveillance plane.

A long-time believer in flying saucers, journalist Jaime Maussan told a news conference on Tuesday the objects were real and seemed "intelligent" after they at one point changed direction and surrounded the plane chasing them.

"They were invisible to the eye but they were there, there is no doubt about it. They had mass, they had energy and they were moving about," he said, after showing a 15-minute video he said the Defense Ministry gave him permission to publicise.

Who.s there? Not Houdini . not yet

By Chris Mooney

10/27/99 - Reprinted from USA Today

Early Celts thought the souls of the departed returned and walked among the living on the night of Oct. 31. According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, about a third of Americans agree: Ghosts or spirits of dead people, they told the pollsters, can return in certain places and situations.

But believers aren't the only ones on the lookout for ghosts in late October. This Halloween, I will be at a s�ance, an ironic but traditional attempt by card-carrying skeptics to contact the spirit of Harry Houdini, the world's greatest "ghostbuster."

Houdini's life, and the poignant Halloween ghost story that arose surrounding his death, remains to this day a perfect example of the importance of skepticism and critical thinking at all times - and especially at Halloween time.

Fittingly, Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. He is best remembered today for his mind-boggling escapes - from maximum-security prisons, immense sets of manacles, submerged torture cells - and for his magician's abilities. Less well known is that after establishing himself as a premiere entertainer, Houdini devoted the latter
part of his life to investigating the paranormal, particularly spiritualist mediums who claimed the ability to contact the dead.

The modern version of spiritualism originated in 1848 in Hydesville, N.Y., when the young sisters Maggie and Katie Fox began to produce strange rapping noises in response to yes-or-no questions, sounds that were attributed to spirits. The Fox sisters later confessed that the rapping had been made by Maggie cracking her big toe, yet spiritualism caught on and continues to thrive today. A 1998 poll found that 52% of American adults believe in it "somewhat."

Critical thinking in the s�ance room

Houdini performed as a medium early in his career and quickly learned he could convince audiences he was communicating with spirits by using simple conjuring tricks in darkened s�ance rooms. But after his beloved mother died, Houdini became desperate to contact her. He attended many s�ances, often as a guest of the British spiritualist and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

Houdini soon realized Doyle did not practice the critical thinking skills with which he had endowed his famous literary detective. When it came to spirit communication, Houdini was forced to side with the empirically minded Holmes over the credulous Doyle, writing, "The more I investigate the subject, the less I can make myself believe."

Houdini was particularly unimpressed by the work of Doyle's wife, who claimed to transcribe a message from Houdini's mother during a s�ance, but wrote in English, a language Houdini's European mother had never known.

Houdini began to train police to expose spiritualists, a practice for which his magician's abilities uniquely qualified him. He also gave public lectures denouncing the famous mediums of his day and showing how their tricks were performed. Houdini's friendship with Doyle crumbled as he became more and more the writer's nemesis: a real-life Sherlock Holmes.

When Houdini died, stories circulated that the famous skeptic had arranged to contact his wife, Bess, from across the grave, if such a thing proved possible. Bess fanned the rumors by offering $10,000 for evidence that someone had heard the words Houdini whispered to her privately on his deathbed. The message was "Rosabelle, believe," a reference to a song Bess was singing when Houdini first saw her in 1894.

For 10 years, Bess awaited a message from Houdini, burning a light by his portrait in her living room. But in 1936, after yet another failed Halloween s�ance, Bess turned out the light.

Maintaining the proper skepticism

Now it's a Halloween tradition among skeptics and magicians to hold Houdini s�ances. In each attempt to contact the spirit of the great skeptic lies an important object lesson about critical thinking: No matter how many years pass, we must never dismiss outright the possibility that Houdini might someday return. On the other hand, we must regard claims of his return - like all paranormal or supernatural claims - with skepticism, and apportion our belief to the available evidence.

As all skeptics know, most ghost stories turn out to be mere bumps in the night, and there really isn't any convincing evidence that spirits come back from the grave. But what about that handful of truly mysterious, truly amazing sounding accounts of ghosts and the paranormal? This Halloween, as the air thickens with stories of hauntings, let us follow Houdini's lead and investigate - skeptically.

Chris Mooney is public relations director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

ABC probably doesn't want people to think it's in the business of passing off urban folklore stories as real news, or altering the facts of stories to fit a conservative spin. But that's what one of its most listened to broadcasters does--six days a week.

Paul Harvey is regarded as a broadcasting icon. An institution. His radio show, distributed by the ABC Radio Networks, is carried on more than 1,200 radio stations and, according to his own press releases, is heard by 23 million listeners six days a week.

Even if you make allowances for self-promotion, his audience exceeds that of talkmeisters Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlesinger. Harvey is advertised as the most listened-to broadcaster in the world.

For more than 40 years, Harvey has been charming listeners with his folksy, down-home style. He calls his broadcasts "visits." While he is perhaps best known for his Rest of the Story feature, three generations have been brought up on his twice-daily newscasts, a 5-minute morning version and a 15-minute noon broadcast. These newscasts consist of a combination of rip-and-read wire copy, with Harvey's patented pregnant pauses and unique inflections, along with a sprinkling of anecdotes passed off as news.

  Chain Letters Anonymous

You receive an e-mail chain letter, and you know you shouldn't forward it to ten of your friends: they'll curse your name for clogging up their mailboxes and for wasting Internet bandwidth. But you don't want the bad karma that they say comes from breaking the chain...

At Chain Letters Anonymous, we understand the anxiety of breaking the chain. We want to help you overcome "forward-button addiction" and the superstitious intoxication that brings computer networks to a crawl.

Not everyone has the strength to quit cold turkey, and we fully understand. To help you gradually stop sending chain letters, volunteers at Chain Letters Anonymous are available 24-hours a day in case you "fall off the inbox" and really, really need to send a chain letter to ten of your friends.

  King of the Paranormal

Broadcast on CNN, the July 1, 2003 installment of "Larry King Live" was a sight to behold. The program, in King's words, explored "the incredible events of 56 years ago at Roswell, New Mexico." What most likely crashed at Roswell in 1947 was a government spy balloon, but the panel of guests assembled on King's show preferred a more lurid version of events. Jesse Marcel, Jr., son of a Roswell intelligence officer, claimed that just after the crash, his father showed him bits of debris that "came from another civilization." Glenn Dennis, who worked at a Roswell funeral home at the time, said a military officer called him to ask about the availability of small caskets (i.e., for dead aliens). Later Denis, obviously a UFO enthusiast, observed out of nowhere that the pyramids in Egypt had recently been "[shut down] for three or four days and no tourists going out there on account of the sightings."

King's program didn't merely advance the notion that an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell in 1947. It also hawked the DVD version of a recent Sci-Fi Channel documentary, "The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence," clips of which appeared throughout the hour. A breathy and sensationalizing take on the events of 1947, "The Roswell Crash" first appeared as a tie-in for Sci-Fi's fictional miniseries Taken, a Steven Spielberg production tracing the impact of UFO abductions on three generations of American families. Other Taken tie-ins that thoroughly blur the line between fact and fiction include a documentary titled Abduction Diaries, a Roper Poll finding that Americans are ready for the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and even the launching of the Coalition for Freedom of Information, an advocacy group devoted to unearthing classified government documents about aliens. Sure enough, King's July 1 guests included two people with Sci-Fi ties: Leslie Kean, a left-wing journalist turned UFO investigator who works with the Coalition for Freedom of Information, and Dr. William Doleman, a University of New Mexico archaeologist contracted by Sci-Fi to excavate the Roswell crash site. Doleman admitted to King that his dig had not yet yielded any definitive evidence, but added that the "results" of his analysis will be aired on Sci-Fi in October--as opposed to, say, being published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

  Loch Ness myth

The Loch Ness monster is a Loch Ness myth.

At least according to the British Broadcasting Corp., which says a team which trawled the loch for any signs of the famous monster came up with nothing more than a buoy moored several yards below the surface.

The team used 600 separate sonar beams and satellite navigation technology to trawl the loch, but found no trace of any monster, the BBC said in a television program broadcast Sunday.

  Interstate Landing Strips

I was watching an urban legends TV show last night and failed the quiz which asked: "Did the American government design the interstate highway system so you can land a plane on the highway in case of emergency?" The answer was "false", and the announcer said "they were never designed that way."

Well, here's at least some proof that this was part of the initial research, if not in the final application of the design of the interstate highways. Straight from the U.S. Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration page:

In the late 1980s, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) conducted an oral history exercise with many State highway officials and some Federal leaders. The material from the oral histories provided background for AASHTO's excellent book, The States and the Interstates: Research on the Planning, Design and Construction of the Interstate and Defense Highway System (1991).

One of those interviewed was Frank Turner, the only career employee of the Bureau of Public Roads/Federal Highway Administration to rise to the position of Federal Highway Administrator (1969-1972). Beginning in the 1950s until his retirement, Turner was involved in all aspects of the Interstate System. During an interview on February 7, 1988, John T. Greenwood asked Turner about the influence of the autobahn on Interstate design:

   One of the things that we did just as a sideline on the Autobahns; after we got a start on the thing . . . we actually went over there and looked at the Autobahns in that regard to include and to incorporate into the Interstate Program (in the design) some of the concepts that they had over there. The Air Force, particularly pushed us on this. I suppose you're familiar with [the fact that one] of our major airports over there that was a part of the Autobahn. In fact, the Autobahn was used originally as runways. The airport was built right on the Autobahn . . . .

   My understanding was that they actually grew out of - the Autobahns were to some extent designed for military purposes, including capabilities as landing strips for aircraft. You couldn't get very many current aircraft down on them. They were designed with that in mind as a secondary use or primary, I don't know which, but anyway, they were used that way. At least one or more of the original early day air bases that were part of the European activity over there, grew out of that. They just enlarged the highway there and I guess they rerouted the highway around it.

   After the war in the early ''50s, we were pressured pretty hard by the Air Force to build into the Interstate System exactly that same capability and that we would even locate the lines, not in accordance with what the law says, by routes as direct as practicable between [the principal metropolitan areas, cities, and industrial centers]-even if we had to twist the alignment here to get in the wind directional consideration, and the low gradients and lack of obstructions and one thing and another, for three mile long sections that would be spaced along here at certain intervals, we were to design those into the system. So, periodically, about every 40-50 miles, we'd have about a three-mile section there that would meet those requirements. This was to be highly classified, of course. But this was one of the concepts that was cranked into it at that time.

   I sent a guy, a team actually, over to Europe with a team from the Air Force headquarters to look at that particular point and see if we could incorporate it. They came back with the conclusion that from a practical standpoint we couldn't really do it. Not because we couldn't do it physically, but we could not, with our projections of traffic use and the kind of controls that would be required to permit emergency use of that thing, except as you took all the highway traffic off entirely. Made it exclusively a runway. It had to be one or the other. It couldn't-maybe today it'd be this way and this afternoon it'd be something different. We just couldn't mold those two concepts together. So it was abandoned, but it was abandoned for that kind of reason, rather than the physical capability of it. But the design of the interstate was based on all this accumulation of material, basic data, traffic counts, economy, everything else that prohibited any intrusion into that concept by something like emergency strips. Part of the system's consideration was defense use by the military. Even if we did that for the Air Force, the Air Force would then be competing with the Transportation Corps on the ground that moving convoys, which one's going to get the green light.

On May 25, while scanning the Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program images pipelined into his desktop from 450 miles in orbit, Hank Brandli skidded at a nighttime photo of Iraq. It looked familiar. But not exactly.

Brandli retrieved another DMSP image he'd archived from May 3. He compared the two. The most recent photo showed a blazing corridor of light running the length of Kuwait, south to north, all the way to the Iraqi border. The image wasn't there on May 3.

"It's going right up to Iraq's oil fields," says the retired Air Force colonel from his home in Palm Bay. "Maybe I'm full of s---. Maybe all they're doing is building a highway to put in McDonald's and sell hamburgers. But why go that way? I think we're in bed with Kuwait. I think we're pumping oil out of Iraq to pay for this war."!NEWSROOM/peoplestoryA1172A.htm

Hira Ratan Manek, aka Hirachand, has not eaten in eight years. He lives on sunlight. But skeptical (and perhaps long-suffering) Indians should read on a bit before going . bah, another scam.

This 64-year-old mechanical engineer has been tried and tested by US space agency NASA. In June 2002, NASA verified his claims when he spent 130 days with its scientists drinking only water. They have even named such subsistence . water and solar energy . the 'HRM (Hira Rattan Manek) phenomenon'.,0008.htm

Lightning Bolt Hits Steeple, Travels Through Guest Evangelist's Microphone

FOREST, Ohio -- Damage to a church in Forest, Ohio, is estimated at $20,000 after a preacher asked God for a sign.

A member of the First Baptist Church said a guest evangelist was preaching repentance and seeking a sign from God when lightning struck the steeple.

Ronnie Cheney called the incident "awesome, just awesome!"

Cheney said the lightning traveled through the microphone, blew out the sound system and enveloped the preacher, who wasn't hurt.

Afterward, services resumed for about 20 minutes until the congregation realized the church was on fire. The building was evacuated.

  Luke 14:26

This hypocritical Biblical quotation refers to the words of Jesus in Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

Interesting Essay:

"One of the bedrock beliefs of most Christian fundamentalists is in the inerrancy of their scripture, the Bible. Indeed, if it can be shown that the English-language Bible that I can obtain at my local bookseller (usually the defined as the King James Version) is absolutely inerrant, their case that it is the word of God would be greatly strengthened.

"But, if, on the other hand, it can be shown that there are clearly and unquestionably errors in the Bible, from whatever source, then the position of the fundamentalist is greatly weakened, and if it is based on inerrancy of the Bible, disproven.

"The purpose of this essay is to make the latter case, i.e., that when the Bible is examined with dispassion and with objectivity, it soon becomes obvious that it is so hopelessly riddled with errors, impossibilities and contradictions that it is essentially ludicrous to make the claim that it is inerrant."

  Atheism on the Rise

A new study indicates significant shifts in the nation's religious composition, with mainstream faith groups stagnating, and the numbers of those who profess no religion on the rise.

The American Religious Identification Survey 2001 was carried out under the auspices of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and is considered a follow-up study of a 1990 census. The poll utilized a sample of over 50,000 randomly selected respondents, and was described as "the most comprehensive portrait of religious identification in the U.S. today." It revealed, for instance, that while the numbers of Roman Catholics increased since 1990 from 46 million to nearly 50.8 million, their percentage of the population fell nearly two points. Protestants and other non-Catholic groups remain the majority, but their proportion slipped sharply from 60% to 52%. And those identifying with a non-Christian religion jumped from 5.8 million to 7.7 million, but reflected only 3.7% of the population.

The survey and news reports about the study, though, noted that one of the most significant findings involved growth in that segment of the adult population "identifying with no religion." In 1990, 14.3 million or roughly 8% identified with this category. The new ARIS count now shows that the non-believer population has grown to 29.4 million, roughly 14.1% of the American community.

A third of the American public believes U.S. forces have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, according to a recent poll. Twenty-two percent said Iraq actually used chemical or biological weapons.

But such weapons have not been found in Iraq and were not used.

Before the war, half of those polled in a survey said Iraqis were among the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. But most of the Sept. 11 terrorists were Saudis; none was an Iraqi.

The results startled even the pollsters who conducted and analyzed the surveys. How could so many people be so wrong about information that has dominated news coverage for almost two years?

This is a fun page with some info on your favourite Sci-Fi shows and how they mock the field of science.

"Ever notice that spaceships on SF TV shows behave more like fighter aircraft than spaceships, or characters don't know the difference between a solar system and a galaxy? Ever notice Star Trek: Voyager has no clue what deuterium is? These are examples of Science Blunders and Boners. This page is devoted to documenting this blunders and elucidating the real science behind the blunder."

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D H McKee's bookshelf: to-read

Sunset and Sawdust
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The Thicket
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