The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Nickell’

More Twisted Thinking from Shroud of Turin Proponents

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 22, 2011

I shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular headline at this time of the year: The Shroud of Turin Wasn’t Faked, Italian Experts Say.  It’s just too easy, I assume, for the media to take a story like this and run with it during the Christmas season.  Going beyond the headline, I’d like to analyze a couple of specifics from the folks who are behind this latest “research” on the Shroud.

First, they claim – falsely – that it would have been impossible to fake the Shroud…

… Experts at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development have concluded in a report that the famed purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ could not have been faked. … [emphasis added]

Which is an interesting claim, based upon the fact that in 2009 researcher Luigi Garlaschelli published his methods for replicating the Shroud using only techniques which would have been available in the 13th and 14th centuries (dates to which all available evidence points as the time of origin of the Shroud).  Here’s what he came up with…

Replications of the Shroud of Turin — So much for the claim that it cannot be replicated (oops)

But the worst part of the analysis by the Shroud proponents comes from the next part of the ABC article:

… According to the Vatican Insider, a project by La Stampa newspaper that closely follows the Catholic church, the experts’ report says, “The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining which is identical in all its facets, would be impossible to obtain today in a laboratory … This inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made.” … [emphasis added]

Note the last line there.  It is essentially one big argument from ignorance – that’s what this entire “scientific” endeavor basically boils down to: we don’t know whether or not the Shroud is real, so therefore it really was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ!

So because you don’t know, you know???

Seriously?  That’s the argument?  Using such sloppy logic I could just as easily argue that the Shroud was created by invisible leprechauns, but somehow I don’t think the Catholic Church would go with that explanation.  And that’s the silly thing about arguments from ignorance: once you use such thinking as an acceptable method of argumentation, just about any kind of crazy idea (without any evidence to support it whatsoever) becomes fair game.

If this is the best the Shroud proponents can do, color me unimpressed.

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Another Spectacular Example of Psychic Fail in Texas “Murder” Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 12, 2011

It seems that in Texas an anonymous “psychic detective” tipped off the police to the fact that there was a gruesome scene in a farmhouse which contained the remains of about 30 people, including the dismembered bodies of multiple children.  Unfortunately, the police of the Liberty County’s Sheriff’s Office actually took these tips seriously, because after they mobilized a massive amount of resources, they found absolutely nothing at the site…

A false tip from a psychic prompted Texas authorities to swarm a rural home searching for a nonexistent mass grave and up to 30 bodies, including those of dismembered children.

A few hours later it was clear the tip was nothing more than a gruesome wild goose chase.

“There’s no crime scene,” Liberty County Judge Craig McNair told reporters as deputies, Texas Rangers and FBI agents wrapped up a fruitless search that gained national media attention. [emphasis added]

Yup, you read that right.  Not only did the local Sheriff’s Office get into the mix, but the Texas Rangers and FBI were also involved in this fiasco!  I think these agencies have opened themselves up to some much deserved derision, because it has been shown conclusively in great detail that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, psychics do not do anything to help with police investigations.  In fact, most police and detectives do not use psychics because they know the track record of such “help” (i.e. it doesn’t work), and they know that chasing down false leads provided by these morons would just be a waste of time and resources (as it was in the spectacular failure of the case in question).

So why is it that these alleged “psychic detectives” keep on cropping up?  Because they are very good self-promoters, and they are playing off people’s desire to have closure on certain topics – it is, after all, very difficult when dealing with certain crimes (especially child abductions) to be patient and follow established and well-tested investigatory procedures.  These psychics play on this sense of unease on the part of the family in question (or perhaps the community) to swoop in and offer a measure of hope (however empty it is) while  also garnering some fame for themselves.

In his article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine titled “The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives'”, I really like how skeptical investigator Joe Nickell puts it…

Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.

In fact, the media—especially Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, NBC’s Medium, and various programs of Larry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers, or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, was featured in an earlier SI [Nickell 2004].) …

… psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of “retrofitting,” psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994). It is bad enough that they are often able to fool members of the media; detectives, if they do not know better, as most do, should learn better. They should, well, investigate their alleged psychic counterparts.

Well, in the Texas case, there is a silver lining.  It seems the agencies in question disliked being deceived by the supposed psychic tipster, and they have decided to try charging them with filing a false police report – perhaps if more of these charlatans were actually held to account, then there would be fewer of the psychic glory-hounds clamoring for their 15 minutes of fame.  We can only hope.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 21, 2011

The Easter season is upon us, and members of the world’s most populace religion – Christianity – will be celebrating the traditional event that serves as the foundation of their beliefs: the supposed death & resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Now, I’m not really interested in getting into all the philosophical & metaphysical questions regarding the beliefs of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ here.  Rather, I am more interested in asking a much more direct question: did Jesus actually exist as a historical figure?

To address this question, and the related issues which are presented in a (pardon the pun) newly risen branch of theological discourse called the Jesus/Christ myth theory, we must take into account the physical evidence (or lack thereof) for the existence of Jesus.

To address these questions, I would like to reference this excellent article from LiveScience.com:

Jesus Christ the Man: Does the Physical Evidence Hold Up?

Jesus Christ may be the most famous man who ever lived. But how do we know he did?

Most theological historians, Christian and non-Christian alike, believe that Jesus really did walk the Earth. They draw that conclusion from textual evidence in the Bible, however, rather than from the odd assortment of relics parading as physical evidence in churches all over Europe.

That’s because, from fragments of text written on bits of parchment to overly abundant chips of wood allegedly salvaged from his crucifix, none of the physical evidence of Jesus’ life and death hold up to scientific scrutiny.  [Who Was Jesus, the Man?]…

This is a particularly interesting point that I think some Christians need to address.  Many insist that the world around us provides evidence for their beliefs: that God is real, and Jesus died for our sins to save us, etc.  However, when we really analyze the world around us to address questions such as “Did Jesus really exist?” the evidence seems lacking; and then those same believers dismiss this lack of evidence and then proceed to point to the Bible as “evidence”.  People who argue in such a manner are not being consistent in their argument nor are they being intellectually honest, because they want to stack the deck of evidence, so to speak.

[**Addendum (4-22-11): Even for those who wish to try gathering all of their “evidence” for the historical reality of Jesus from the Bible, there are very troublesome inconsistencies.  To see why, try taking this Easter Quiz on the Biblical account of Jesus’s death & resurrection over at Skeptic Money]

So let’s talk about the supposed physical evidence for the existence of Jesus, and see just why it is that it doesn’t pass muster.  For example, a recent “documentary” claimed that the original nails used to crucify Jesus on the cross could have been found, but according to the LiveScience.com article…

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Posted in religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments »

Skepticon 3 – The Biggest Skeptic Event EVER?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 13, 2010

I wanted to pass this along from my friend Phil over at Skeptic Money. If you’re able, see if you can make it; sounds like it’s going to be epic 🙂

Skepticon 3 – 1,800 Skeptics! It Will Be The Biggest Skeptic Event Ever And It’s FREE!

Skepticon 3 is coming Nov 19 – 21 2010.  The event was limited to 500 guests and as of last week it was sold out and there was a waiting list.  All of this and there is still over 3 months before the event.   If only they could afford to get a bigger space.  Well Polaris Financial Planning, the only investment company that specializes in helping skeptics plan for retirement, has stepped up with a donation to put Skepticon 3 in a place that will hold 1,800 skeptics.  Skepticon 3 is now on target to be the biggest skeptic event ever!

Here are some of the reasons to love Skepticon 3

– It’s in the heart of the bible belt!

– It could have as many as 1,800 skeptics in one place!

– This skeptic convention does not give religion a free pass!

– It’s FREE!  Donate Here.

And…. There is an amazing list of speakers!

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

This past weekend I attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, along with about 1300 other skeptics & supporters of science.  And, like last year, there was a talent show in which I participated.  Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson – this time on karate & board breaking.  And, thanks to my colleague Dean over at the Blog of Phyz, I have some slow-motion footage of my grand finale break…

It might surprise many people to know that pretty much anyone can break boards with little training – in order to do more challenging breaks like that pictured here takes more training, though the basic principles are still the same. But in the end there is *nothing* mystical involved – no chi or “life energy” or any of that rot. With proper body mechanics and good use of mass (twisting the body), velocity (dropping to convert GPE into KE), and a low time of impact (solid supports that won’t give) one can make lots of kindling out of boards. Oh yeah, and the spacers are a nice trick as well 🙂 For a fuller explanation, see my previous blog post on the subject.

And, just to put my money where my mouth is, I have to brag about one more thing: while at TAM8, I taught skeptic & paranormal investigator Joe Nickell how to break boards.  Joe had never before performed a board break, and – to my knowledge – has no formal martial arts training, yet I was able to get him successfully breaking boards with just 5 minutes of instruction.  Here he is successfully performing a palm-heel strike on a board I’m holding…

So, there you have it: if Joe Nickell, at his age & with no formal training, can employ the basic physics & body mechanics required to break a board, then pretty much anyone can do it… no special chi or paranormal powers required 🙂

Posted in physics denial/woo, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

More Shroud Science FAIL

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 22, 2009

The Shroud of Turin has been in the news a bit recently, and I blogged about how it can be replicated using completely natural methods (something many Shroud-proponents say cannot be done – whoops).  Well, now the Shroudies are back, with one of them claiming that she has seen ancient writing on the actual Shroud which “proves” it was the funeral covering for Christ’s burial.

Researcher: Faint writing seen on Shroud of Turin

A Vatican researcher has rekindled the age-old debate over the Shroud of Turin, saying that faint writing on the linen proves it was the burial cloth of Jesus. Experts say the historian may be reading too much into the markings, and they stand by carbon-dating that points to the shroud being a medieval forgery.

Barbara Frale, a researcher at the Vatican archives, says in a new book that she used computer-enhanced images of the shroud to decipher faintly written words in Greek, Latin and Aramaic scattered across the cloth.

She asserts that the words include the name “(J)esu(s) Nazarene” — or Jesus of Nazareth — in Greek. That, she said, proves the text could not be of medieval origin because no Christian at the time, even a forger, would have mentioned Jesus without referring to his divinity. Failing to do so would risk being branded a heretic.

Of course, the claim of “proof” here flies in the face of much other evidence which clearly shows the Shroud’s origins as a pious fraud in the 1300s A.D., way past the burial date of Christ.  This includes evidence from independent radiocarbon dating tests, as well as evidence from historical, iconographic, pathological, physical, and chemical sources that points to its inauthenticity. As one of the foremost skeptical Shroud researchers, Joe Nickell, has concluded: the shroud is a 14th century painting, not a 2000-year-old cloth with Christ’s image.  And, concerning these most recent claims of seeing writing in the Shroud, they are dubious for multiple reasons…

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Skepticism & Science at Dragon*Con 2009

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 7, 2009

Well, I’m starting to wind down here at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, which I have basically concluded is Mardi Gras for geeks – a lot of people dress up & party, and I was no exception.  Below was my small contribution to the party atmosphere 🙂

pirate-matt

On a serious note, while Dragon*Con is essentially a big science-fiction convention & general geek-fest, there is a very serious science & skeptical presence here.  The Skeptics track is now in its second year, and it seems as if it grew out of a desire to counter or provide a rebuttal to some of the more woo-ish paranormal nonsense that you see here.  For instance, there is a track which seems quite heavy on the paranormal woo called the X-track where all manner of ghost hunters do their thing.  With so many people attending Dragon*Con who can actually distinguish fact from fiction, it’s no wonder that many people are interested in the actual science & skepticism tracks.

I will outline all the things I did here – lecturing on the Large Hadron Collider & particle physics, participating on the Science of Star Wars panel, moderating the Darwin’s Bulldogs panel on teachers combating creationism, and participating on the Skepticism in the Classroom panel – in future posts.  What I want to discuss for the rest of this post is why it is that I think having skeptics present at events like Dragon*Con is important in the first place…

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Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Psychic Failure in Investment Scams

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 26, 2009

I wanted to pass along an excellent article from Joe Nickell, skeptical investigator for the Center For Inquiry, concerning a recently revealed Ponzi scheme and the role that psychics played in it. In an earlier post, called Psychic Parasites, I outlined how many psychics are playing off people’s fears in these tough economic times, and Nickell’s article shows very nicely why this is dangerous.

You can read the entire article here, but allow me to summarize some of the key points…

Now we know: Buffalo-area investment manipulator Guy Gane Jr., who has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a 5.8-million-dollar Ponzi scheme, regularly sought advice from “psychics.” …

… One of Gane’s self-professed psychics was Ellen Bourn, who is a past-president of the Lily Dale Assembly, the world’s largest center for spiritualism (the belief that one can communicate with the dead). Her Web site bills her as an “incomparable metaphysician, psychic, master astrologer, healer and teacher.” In actuality, her real name is Ellen Bornstein, and she—like Sylvia Browne and many other “psychics”—has traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. …

… Gane’s other psychic [James F. Lagona] has an even longer list of claimed powers—or fantasies: He is a self-described Christian mystic, dowser, spiritualist medium, healer, tarot reader, etc., including exorcist. He also describes himself as a Bishop of the Western Rite Orthodox Catholic Church and “renowned metaphysician,” as well as a bankruptcy attorney—although the home he practiced from has suffered foreclosure and is presently boarded up.

psychic-accuracy

I really like the manner in which Joe finishes his article. I can’t say it any better, so here it is…

I would just ask the two alleged psychics: Couldn’t you get an inkling of what was going on? Catch a glimpse of those millions of dollars disappearing from people’s retirement funds? Feel the vibrations from the impending scandal and misfortune that you yourself were caught up in? Were your psychic colleagues at Lily Dale and elsewhere unable to warn you? Now do you understand the consequences of living in a fantasy world?

Sadly, I don’t think either of these supposedly “gifted” individuals (nor their gullible believers) will even take the time to consider that their “powers” are non-existent and reside purely within their own personal fantasy lands. More’s the pity.

Posted in economics, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

 
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