A Skeptical Investigation of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery
Posted by mattusmaximus on June 25, 2010
Recently, I was contacted by the Independent Investigation Group (IIG) out of Los Angeles, California, concerning an impromptu skeptical investigation my wife and I had conducted of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery back in the summer of 2006 during our vacation. Apparently, a man named Nick Nelson (whom I had met briefly at the site) – somewhat of a pseudoscientific guru regarding all New Age “vortex” claims – had contacted IIG about taking them up on their $50,000 Challenge. IIG’s prize follows in the spirit of James Randi’s famous Million Dollar Challenge:
The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG works with the applicant in designing the test protocol, and defining the conditions under which a test will take place. IIG representatives will then administer the actual test. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform an informal demonstration of the claimed ability or phenomenon, which if successful will be followed by the formal test. The IIG conducts all demonstrations and tests at our site in Hollywood, California, except in special circumstances.
Well, it seems the folks at IIG could be actually going to the Montana Vortex site, outside of Columbia Falls, Montana, at the request of Nick Nelson to test out the various claims by the proprietors. If Mr. Nelson can come up with the money to fly some IIG investigators out to Montana and put them up for a couple of days, then perhaps there will be some serious investigation of the supposedly “paranormal” phenomena at the Montana Vortex. I’m not sure, as of this writing, whether or not IIG and Nick Nelson have finalized any plans, so stay tuned for more info.
**Note: the IIG investigators want me to make clear in no uncertain terms that Nick Nelson initiated discussion of their $50,000 Challenge with them, and not the other way around!
Anyway, as I stated earlier, the IIG folks contacted me, because they heard (probably through this post I made on the JREF Forum) about my desire to send the results of my off-the-cuff skeptical analysis to James Randi. They wanted my notes to see what I thought of the tricks & optical illusions (that’s all they are, in my professional opinion as a physics professor) taking place at the Montana Vortex, and I eagerly shared them with IIG. And I shall also share them with you here. I hope you enjoy the read… :)
Vortex Mania in Montana
During the first weeks of August [in 2006], my wife and I were traveling west, and we went through Montana. Just west of Glacier National Park in the town of Columbia Falls we encountered the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery – www.Montanavortex.com. I wanted to stop because they had a tilted house, and I recall how much I enjoyed a similar thing as a child.
However, when we got there, we got much more than we bargained for than just a mere tilted house carnival sideshow. Upon looking at the brochures being handed out at the gift shop, we knew we were in for a good time. Contained therein are numerous claims of “the natural laws of physics” being bent or broken, “quantum & gravitational anomalies”, “trees that grow in weird shapes and odd angles”, and “orbs as seen on the ‘Sci-Fi Channel’”. In addition, we were treated to all manner of gobble-de-gook that these phenomena could be caused by “geological faults”, “crossed gravitational fields”, or “navigational bearing points for extraterrestrials”, and that “Native Americans sensed the strangeness of this location and called it the ‘place of no return’”.
Since we both have scientific training, mine in physics and hers in geophysics, we thought that it’d be interesting to see what these folks had to say. We were not disappointed.
When we got to the tilted house, we were shown what is probably the best illusion at the site. This is much like the illusion at the Oregon Vortex of which Randi has recently written (http://www.randi.org/jr/2006-07/071406vortex.html#i1), where two people stand at either end of a plank or slab and when they switch positions, it seems to all observers that one has grown in height while the other has shrunk. We had photos of us taken when my wife and I stood on the cement slab.
This effect was observable to those who stood on the slab as well as those who were backed away from it. We were told repeatedly that this was due to the “vortex energy field” supposedly going right down the middle of the slab between the two ends. Of course, my wife and I were skeptical of such loony claims and we challenged the proprietors, Joe and Ali Hauser, about their assertions.
Since I thought that this was simply a variation of the famous Plank Illusion, I endeavored to show those present that it was, indeed, nothing more than an optical illusion. A level was used to measure the cement slab, because I knew that in order for this illusion to work properly, there had to be a slight angle between the ends of the slab. However, the folks at the Montana Vortex had come up with a way to try throwing the skeptics off.
Note carefully in the photos that there is not one cement slab, but three. The participants stand on the two end slabs, while during the presentation of the illusion a level is used to show that – ta da – the middle slab is level. When I challenged Joe Hauser in front of a group of tourists that I didn’t think the slab was level, we measured it. Indeed, the middle slab is level, but I found that the two end slabs are not level. In fact, they both dip downhill slightly at approximately the same angle, roughly 3 degrees. When I pointed out this embarrassing fact to those present, unequivocally stating that the slabs were not level, despite the claims of the owners, Joe decided to call in the cavalry: his wife Ali.
While I was attempting to explain to the tourists what we’d found and how it worked, Ali was doing her best to distract them with all manner of crazy talk such as, “optical illusions won’t show up on film / camera” (they will and do), “reality isn’t what you think it is, you have to be open to it (alternate views)”, and (my favorite, in reference to my Skeptic’s Society T-shirt – which said “Science Rules” on the back) “Science rules only until it is proven wrong! And it’s proven wrong all the time.” Sure thing Ali.
There were also some other apparently strange phenomena at the site, which were seemingly impossible to explain unless the “vortex” was invoked. These included…
* magnetic anomalies, which were curiously non-existent that day and didn’t show up on our compass. We were told that such anomalies could manifest themselves as a normal reading, one completely backwards, or just any old random reading – essentially, any compass reading would qualify as evidence of the “vortex”.
* twisted trees, which “could only be explained by the vortex of swirling energy” and which also “could only be found at sites like this” – curious since we found similar trees everywhere on our trip, such as the ones in these photos [in locations well away from the Montana Vortex]…
* various supposedly “vortex induced” effects on light, such as the breaking of a thin stick’s shadow – this effect supposedly only occurred within a circle of the previously mentioned “vortex trees”, but I showed that it is a common effect of light interference that occurs whenever two shadows overlap. I repeated this effect just days later at my mother’s house using two sticks…
* that the fuzzy outlines of our shadows were, in fact, evidence of our “auras” and not the result of light and penumbral shadows – I also showed that inanimate objects also apparently had such an “aura” whereupon Joe began to mumble on about Kirlian photography
The whole time, my wife and I expressed our skepticism and refusal to blindly accept the claims and explanation of the owners and other “researchers” (including the notable Nick Nelson) at the site. When I told Joe Hauser that he’d shown us no evidence of anything that couldn’t be explained by well known effects of light and optical illusions, he responded in the way typical of the true believer: “Skeptics will never believe, even if they see it with their own eyes” and “You cannot ever convince a skeptic (like James Randi).”
And lastly, when one other visitor in our party expressed indignation that I might question the claims of “vortex energy” and other flummery, I retorted with one of my favorite skeptical lines: “It’s okay to have an open mind, just not so open that your brain falls out.”
In closing, we had a fun time visiting this sideshow – the tilted house was a nice time, but the mental exercise we got out of watching the pseudoscientists weave their web of malarkey was well worth the price of admission. One thing is for sure, at the Montana Vortex, there is certainly a lot of spinning taking place.