The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘supernatural’

Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 25, 2010

**Update: It seems that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the interviewed may have to be postponed.  Stay tuned!


As a follow up to my earlier post regarding Dave Schrader’s talk on paranormal investigation at Convergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis, I wanted to let everyone know that Dave will be interviewing me for Darkness Radio in the next few days.  I’m not exactly sure when the interview will be airing (probably within the next week or so), but if you watch this blog I’ll be letting you know.

The nature of the interview will basically be me & Dave talking in general about the paranormal, ghost-hunting, and the role that science & skepticism play (or, as is often the case, don’t play) in such investigations.  Here are some points that I plan to bring up in my discussion with Dave…

1. What is a “ghost”?  Has anyone ever come up with any kind of quantifiable definition for such an entity?

2. What is the proposed mechanism by which ghosts interact with the physical world around us?  How can they be measured?  Why would ghosts interact in this manner with the world?

3. How can we distinguish a potentially legitimate “ghost signal” from other phenomena?

4. Do any ghost hunters conduct double blind experiments?

5. Are the investigations by some believing ghost hunters replicable by skeptics?

6. Is there any way to “catch” a ghost, or its essence (ectoplasm, etc), for study?

7. Why is it that much of ghost hunting seems to be arguments from ignorance (i.e., ghost-of-the-gaps reasoning, I call it)?

I’ll also tell some stories from my own experiences ghost hunting, going all the way back to my high school years, as well as why I’ve come to the conclusions that I’ve never seen any evidence for a ghost or anything supernatural or paranormal during my life.

I anticipate that this will be a fun discussion, and I eagerly look forward to it.  If you have suggestions for topics to discuss and/or questions for me to ask Dave Schrader, please let me know.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 3, 2010

On the second day of Convergence/Skepchicon, one event especially caught my eye – a talk titled “The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review” given by Dave Schrader, the host of Paranormal Radio. Almost immediately I was skeptical, as I have analyzed the claims & methods of various ghost hunters before and found them to be quite dubious.  In addition, many of my skeptic colleagues cringed a bit when they heard his name and my mention of his talk.  Thus, in the spirit of learning more for myself I attended his talk and took many notes – in the end, I was both a bit impressed with Dave but also quite disappointed.  Read through my notes, which is a transcription of his talk, and please see my specific comments in italics. Also please make sure to read my closing question to Dave Schrader and his response…

The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

How to investigate the Paranormal, from setting up a team to reviewing evidence.  Presented by Dave Schrader, host of Paranormal Radio and author of The Other Side: A Teens Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal.

Dave is walking around handing out info TAPS, ghost hunting, and talking about a local [Minneapolis] show called Ghostbustin’ 911 (lolz).

How many people have ever gone on a ghost hunt before? [a few hands raise, including my own]

I’m going to show you a bizarre, demonic picture from a possible demonic haunting.  The lady of the house claimed she was smelling weird smells like rotting meat or poop along with strange cries.  While there I was taking photos and got a shot of a demonic, and here it is… [shows photo of a little kid in a costume – laughter]

Title: A Common Sense Look at Paranormal Investigating and Evidence Review…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

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… 🙂

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 46 Comments »

Man Claims to Have Survived 70 Years Without Food or Water

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 13, 2010

There’s a story running all over the Interwebs like wildfire… about a man who is making the seemingly miraculous claim that he has survived for 70 years without food.  Essentially, the man – an Indian mystic named Prahlad Jani, is claiming that he can live on “spiritual energy” in the form of air & meditation.  These claims are equivalent to those made by a form of New Age nonsense called breatharianism.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Mr. Jani and his followers are basically lying, because there is no physical way that a person can live for a month, much less 70 years, without food & water.  Skeptic Ben Radford has a really good take down on this nonsense…

As remarkable as his story is, Jani is not the first, nor the only, person to claim such a supernatural power. The claim that people can live without food or water is called inedia, and is actually somewhat of a common claim among religious fakirs and godmen of India. Unfortunately none of the cases have withstood scientific scrutiny. The human body needs both food and water to function; it’s as simple as that.

It’s easy for anyone to claim that he or she has not had anything to eat or drink for the past few weeks or months (or years). But unless the person has been carefully and continuously watched during that time, it’s impossible to prove the assertion true.

Several people who have claimed to survive without food or water were later caught eating and drinking. It can take only a few seconds to eat something, and other than in specific areas such as prisons, conducting a close around-the-clock surveillance on a person is not easy. Often the person will ask for privacy to sleep or go to the bathroom (which is suspicious in its own right) – and then snack surreptitiously. One well-known breatharian advocate in the 1980s, a man named Wiley Brooks, claimed he did not eat yet was caught consuming junk food.

And here’s a very interesting point that Radford brings up regarding the fact that Mr. Jani apparently lost weight during the time he was being observed…

This is not the first time that Jani has made this claim. He was examined in 2003 for about a week, during which time, he apparently did not eat or exercise – but he did lose weight. If Jani’s abilities are real, it seems odd that he would lose weight during the time that his food intake was being monitored. If he truly gets all the sustenance he needs from air and meditation, there’s no reason he would lose weight when he doesn’t eat.

What’s worse is this: it seems that some people in the Indian Armed Forces are actually spending time & money on researching the “secrets” behind Mr. Jani’s supposed miracle.  I’m not kidding… there are high level Indian military people who want to learn how Jani pulls this off so they can apply it the techniques to soldiers in the field who could supposedly go for long periods of time without food and/or water.  What a colossal waste!  This lunacy reminds me of the, now infamous, debacle by the U.S. military when they wasted millions of taxpayer dollars researching “psychic warfare” – as outlined in the recent movie The Men Who Stare At Goats.

If Mr. Jani wants to convince skeptics of his supposed paranormal powers, I have a simple solution: round-the-clock observation by multiple watchers, including via constant video recording and even live-streaming over the Internet, where he is locked away in an empty room with no access to any food or water at all… for a month or two straight.  If he survives, then maybe we’re onto something.  My guess is, for obvious reasons, he would never submit to such a test – I wonder why not?

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Walking Barefoot on Broken Glass – Not Paranormal, Just Physics

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2010

While at Skepchicamp 2010, one of the woo-busting physics demonstrations I performed was that of walking barefoot on broken glass shards.  Here’s a close up of the action…

This is a standard carnival trick, also used by various New Age gurus to display their supposed mystical, paranormal, or supernatural powers to their gullible followers.  Sorry folks, no woo is required to explain this (pardon the pun) impressive feat.  This is some video shot by a few of my students earlier this year when we were discussing the physics of pressure

It can all be explained with a simple understanding of basic physics: by walking flat-footed on the shards, I spread my body weight evenly over the entire surface area of my feet, which means that I’m touching a large number of glass shards at once. Thus, since my weight is distributed over so many points, the pressure (force per unit area) at any one of those points is so small that it isn’t enough to stab or cut through my skin.

Thus, through a simple application of Occam’s Razor, we can conclude that nothing paranormal is required to explain what’s going on, just good physics!

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Pat Robertson is an Asshole

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2010

I’m taking a bit of a departure from my usual routine to state something which should be patently obvious to anyone with even a shred of common, human decency: Pat Robertson is an asshole. Actually, to say as much would be an insult to assholes, but I cannot think of any other way to put it.

Of course, I’m referring to his recent comments regarding how the people of Haiti somehow deserved the earthquake which has killed & maimed so many because it is a punishment from God for Haitian slaves practicing voodoo (and swearing “a pact with the devil”) hundreds of years ago when they revolted against the French.  But don’t take it from me, take it from the Big Asshole himself…

Wow… I… am… speechless… well, not quite.  But these comments are truly shocking in their insensitivity, immorality, and intellectual vacuity.  They are insensitive for obvious reasons.  I contend that they are immoral because Robertson is using this tragedy to push his own narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity – while neglecting the fact that roughly 85% of the population of Haiti is Catholic!  Of course, some jerks like Robertson will rationalize the argument by saying something like “Catholics aren’t real Christians” (which is a version of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy) while conveniently ignoring the fact that Catholics (with the exception of Eastern Orthodox Christians) were the only Christians for about 1500 years of history!  Arrgh!

**Aside: not that it should matter what the victims’ religious, or lack thereof, beliefs are; basic human decency should sway us to help them in their hour of need.

The comments are intellectually vacuous because they display the logical extension of a worldview rooted in superstition instead of science, reason, and rationality.  In Robertson’s worldview, there is absolute good and absolute evil (personified in his versions of God and Satan), and he creates a false dichotomy of a pure black-and-white world where those who share his beliefs are on the side of good (God) while those who disagree with him are on the side of evil (Satan) – recall how he made similar comments right after 9/11 about how the U.S. “deserved” to be attacked. Of course, his ignores the reality of how the world is rarely so simplistic, and there are complexities & shades of gray that pop up in many aspects of life.

Another aspect of Robertson’s commentary is disturbing: it views the world through the lens of supernatural forces beyond the understanding of humanity.  There isn’t a natural world which can be examined and understood through a reasoned analysis of natural causes (i.e. the scientific method); rather, the world is governed by good and evil spirits.  It’s all about God & angels versus Satan & demons – a view which, more than anything, propagates fear, ignorance, division, and humanity’s most negative tribal tendencies.

Alas, now that I’ve vented my spleen about Robertson’s stupidity, I shall cease cursing the darkness by lighting a candle (to use Carl Sagan’s analogy)… perhaps the best way to deal with assholes like Pat Robertson is to stay rooted in the real, natural world and actually deal with problems using reason & rationality as opposed to moaning about ghosts, goblins, fairies, and other vestiges of superstitious nonsense.  In other words, we are empowered and can actually do something because we realize that we live in the real world and can change it for the better – we are not slaves to supernatural powers beyond our control and/or comprehension.

If you want to help the people of Haiti (and I sincerely hope you do), a good start is to consider making an immediate cash donation to a reputable international relief agency, such as the Red Cross.

Go forth and light candles.

Posted in philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

Jay Leno Sticks It to Sylvia Browne — On Live TV

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 5, 2009

On Tuesday, Nov. 3rd, psychic Sylvia Browne made a surprise guest appearance on The Jay Leno Show. This is very surprising, seeing as how Leno is a definite skeptic when it comes to psychics & their woo (he coined the now famous phrase “Why don’t you ever see this headline: ‘Psychic Wins Lottery‘?”).  So why was Browne there in the first place?

What happened is that his show has a segment called Earn Your Plug, whereby celebrities who wish to have their TV show or movie plugged have to do something on the show to merit the advertising.  Well, last night the celebs were Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat of the movie “Paranormal Activity”, and for the Earn Your Plug segment they decided to surprise Leno by having Sylvia Browne give him a reading.  See for yourself how it went…

Jay Leno vs. Sylvia Browne

Right off the bat, Leno was completely blindsided by the fact that a psychic like Browne was even on his show.  Notice how he makes the crack at the beginning of the reading about replacing some employees in the near future; something tells me that this is one prediction which is likely to come true.  Had he known that Featherston & Sloat had wanted to bring Browne onto the show, Leno would have likely stopped it from happening.

In addition, I want to point something else out that Leno did – he was openly, though playfully (his show is about entertainment, after all), skeptical of what Browne was attempting to do.  Whenever she made a claim, rather than allow her to prattle on and on with all manner of nonsensical “predictions” (often known as cold reading), he would stop her and challenge her on specific points.  It is also worth noting how she reacted to Leno not simply believing what she said or at least playing along with her: she got angry with him.  She didn’t get screaming mad, but watching her demeanor and body language speaks volumes about how upset she was that he even dared to question her supposed divine prowess (she did claim, after all, that her “abilities” were “from God”).  Essentially, she was doing little more than making a blatant argument from authority in this regard, and it was painfully (for her) obvious that Leno wasn’t having any of it.

I think a good example was this exchange:

Browne: “Do you know how many people over the years have told me that I’m wrong about something, but came back later to tell me that I was right?”

Leno: “No. How many?”

In the end, I think that while it was a negative that a psychic scumbag like Sylvia Browne even got onto Leno’s show in the first place, Leno himself turned it into a more positive experience by not treating her seriously & acting openly skeptical and asking questions.  The result was, in my opinion, that by the end of the reading – which was mercifully short – the vast majority of the audience was laughing at Ms. Browne and not with her.  And if there’s anyone who deserves to be laughed at, it is Sylvia Browne and her ilk.

Good move, Jay, for educating people on how to deal with such supernatural claims.  Johnny Carson would be proud of you 🙂

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

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