When it comes to the supernatural, believers and skeptics have a set of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Religious believers claim that faith healers can make miraculous healings happen. Believers in psychic phenomena claim that things like extrasensory perception (ESP) are real. Believers in spiritualism claim that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by individuals with special powers such as mediums. Skeptics however, point out that every time such occurrences have been investigated thoroughly, no evidence for their existence has been found. The disagreement between believers and skeptics has led to a lot of acrimony peppered with plenty of throwing up of hands, shaking of heads, and rolling of eyes. Can’t believers and skeptics agree on some things?
I think they can. For one thing, the vast majority of both believers and skeptics would agree that it is not ethical or moral for a fake faith healer, or psychic, or medium to deprive people of their hard-earned money through lies and trickery. There are many examples of such fakes. Many mediums in the United States in the 1920s were exploiting people’s pain over losing loved ones, tricking them into thinking they could communicate with their spirits. In the 1980s many psychics such as James Hydrick deceived people into believing they had supernatural powers. During this time period, the televangelist Peter Popoff was also active tricking people into believing he could cure them of their ailments through the power of God. In the 2000s psychics like Rosemary Altea fooled people into believing she could communicate with their dead relatives. In the 2010s, the psychic Maria Duval and her associates tricked as many as 1.4 million American, most of them elderly and sick, into sending money by mail in exchange for psychic help to heal their ailments or improve their economic situation.
If a person is promised a service such as contacting their dearly departed, or the healing of a malady, finding love, improving their economic situation, or a peek into their future in exchange for their money, then said person is entitled to receive just what they were promised. This is a very basic and straightforward principle based on universal common sense notions of honesty. But this just leads us to the cause of the acrimony between believers and skeptics. By which procedure do we determine whether a faith healer, a psychic, or a medium is honest or fake in a manner that will be accepted by both sides?
I don’t know a definite answer to this question, but I do have a suggestion regarding how stringent the procedure should be. Let me build my case for it.
Let’s start with Penn and Teller. These guys are a fantastic duo of magicians. They have been in the business for decades. They have a huge knowledge regarding how magic is performed, and not only do they perform amazing tricks, but they also invent new ones. Penn and Teller have a show called “Fool Us” where they invite the best magicians in the world to try to fool them. In other words, to try to perform a magic trick for them that they can’t figure out how it’s done. Despite their experience and their knowledge, Penn and Teller have been fooled quite a number of times by other magicians such as Rebecca Herrera as shown in the video below.
I am a scientist and a skeptic, and I consider myself smart. However, for the life of me I cannot figure out even how some of the most mediocre magicians do their tricks, let alone Penn and Teller or other world class magicians. However, as long as a trick is limited to its magic context, there is no problem. It’s all wonder, fun, and games. But in the moment a trick is removed from this context and performed as part of a séance, a psychic demonstration, or a faith healing event under the pretense that it is not a trick but a bona fide supernatural event, that is where the problem arises.
Imagine if the magician Rebecca Herrera featured in the video above used her talents to try to convince people that she really has supernatural abilities. It would be too easy. We are all accustomed to dealing with nature, and nature does not lie, but when it comes to dealing with dishonest tricksters, the truth is that the vast majority of people are sitting ducks. When individuals witness things they cannot explain, many will be inclined to accept the reality of these things and jettison skepticism out the window, which will soon be followed by their money. This is especially true in the case of the most vulnerable such as those who have lost loved ones, or are facing difficult family situations, or are experiencing health problems.
There are literally thousands of ways in which a dishonest person can fool others into believing they have supernatural powers. This often involves using very basic techniques to obtain information such as “cold reading” coupled to other more elaborate tricks such as those described in the video below from The Real Hustle series.
Nowadays with the advent of the internet it is even easier to obtain personal information from individuals and present it as having been obtained by supernatural means.
The performance of these tricks is safer for the performer if they are carried out within a religious context. This is due to the fact that any miracle that didn’t work can be blamed on weak faith. There are several people who have deserted the faith healing profession and they have revealed many of the tricks they use to dupe believers. In the video below by Derren Brown you can check some of them.
So now let me get to my suggestion.
Without suggesting to believers that ALL faith healers, psychics, or mediums are fake, I nevertheless want to posit that, because it is virtually impossible for regular folks like you or me to tell the difference between a trick and the real thing, you should set the bar for accepting that the powers of these characters is real very, very high. I would even recommend that before believing, you should get help from someone in the magical profession to identify any tell-tale signs of cheating. Do not try to do this yourself! Fake faith healers, psychics, or mediums can have decades of experience deceiving people. They will use their tricks, manipulate your emotions, and fool you. This is especially true if you WANT to believe. If we accept that there are liars and cheats out there, displaying skepticism is not a weakness in your capacity to believe or your faith. Rather it signals that you are prudent and discriminating in your beliefs, which is a good thing to be.
Psychic picture from Pixabay is in the public domain. Séance scene from “Weird of What?” by Sgerbic is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Many people employ mnemonic devices to remember things. Mnemonic devices are techniques that are used to make it easier to memorize and recall information. For example, when I was in high school, we were trying to remember the names of the Great Lakes for our geography class. The professor asked if anyone’s name begun with an “e”. Promptly a girl named Ester raised her hand. The professor then told us to remember the phrase “Only Ester Has Much Sense” because the first letters stood for the name of the Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior).
In many disciplines of human knowledge generations of students have used these mnemonic devices, and science is no exception. Many mnemonics are outrageous, silly, or naughty on purpose to maximize the memory process, while others are quite bland. Today we shall take a look at several of the most interesting mnemonic devices used in the sciences.
In the chemical sciences, students and researchers often have to dilute strong acids with water to prepare solutions. But this process carries a dangerous pitfall. When water is added to a strong acid, a vigorous reaction occurs that releases heat and quickly converts the water to gas. This can make the acid splash with dangerous consequences. Interestingly, the reaction obtained when doing the opposite, adding the strong acid to water, is not as strong. Therefore chemistry students are taught the mnemonic rule: “Do like you ought’er, add acid to water”. This is often changed to the more humorous expression, “Do like you otter, add acid to water”.
In electrochemistry, the process by which an element loses (oxidation) or gains (reduction) electrons and where this takes place (anode or cathode), can be remembered by the mnemonic Red Cat (Reduction at Cathode) and An Ox (Anode for Oxidation).
The most prolific area for mnemonic devices in chemistry is that devoted to remembering the elements of the periodic table and their order. An example covering the first 18 elements is Here He Lies Beneath Bed Clothes, Nothing On, Feeling Nervous. Naughty Margaret Always Sighs, "Please Stop Clowning Around." This corresponds to Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluoride, Neon, Natrium (sodium), Magnessium, Aluminum, Silicon, Phosphorous, Sulphur, Chloride, and Argon.
The field of medicine boasts a huge list of mnemonic devices as medical students have to memorize a prodigious amount of names corresponding to things ranging from structures in the human body to the symptoms of diseases or conditions.
One example is Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can't Handle, which is the mnemonic to remember the names of the bones of the wrist: Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, and Hamate. Another is Old People From Texas Eat Spiders, which is the mnemonic to remember the bones of the skull: Occipital, Parietal, Frontal, Temporal, Ethnoid, and Sphenoid.
Some medical mnemonic devices are not that elaborate. An example is the possible causes of abdominal swelling which is coded in “The 9 F’s”: Fat, Feces, Fluid, Flatus, Fetus, Full-sized tumors, Full bladder, Fibroids, and False pregnancy.
A few medical mnemonics are even funny in a dark humor sort of way. The primary causes of urinary incontinence, Delirium, Infection, Atrophic vaginitis, Pharmaceuticals, Excess excretion, Restricted mobility, and Stool impaction, are remembered by the mnemonic DIAPERS. The activities that an individual needs to perform in order to function independently, Dressing, Eating, Ambulation, Toileting, and Hygiene, are remembered by employing the mnemonic DEATH.
Students of astronomy have to memorize the names of many celestial bodies and systems of classification.
The name and order of the planets in the solar system could be memorized using My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, which of course refers to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. This was at least during the time Pluto was considered a bona fide planet. Now, that the official planets in the solar system stop at Neptune, the very educated mother probably Just Served Us Noodles.
A particular mnemonic famous in the astronomical community is that for remembering the spectral classification of stars. Depending on the spectrum of the light emitted by stars, they are classified as O, B, A, F, G, K. and M. The mnemonic traditionally used to remember this is Oh, Be A Fine Girl Kiss Me. Since the mnemonic was coined, not only have new categories been created in the classification, but also efforts have been made to make the mnemonic less sexist (for example: Only Boys Accepting Feminism Get Kissed Meaningfully). There are many alternative versions of this mnemonic.
Living things and their complexity have given rise to many names that biology students must remember.
For example, in biology the levels of classification of living things, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, can be remembered by the mnemonic King Phillip Came Over From Germany Stoned, or many of its watered down versions to avoid the reference to intoxicating substances.
In cell biology the different stages of the cell cycle are remembered through mnemonics such as Idiot, Pass Me Another Tequila, which corresponds to the phases of mitosis (Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, and Telophase), or “the cat Peed on a MAT”, which corresponds to the phases of meiosis (Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase).
In math, mnemonics are used to remember formulas and solutions to different equations. One particular example is from the area of trigonometry where the value of the sine, cosine, and tangent of an angle of a right-angled triangle can be derived from mathematical equations performed on the length of the sides of the triangle. The formulas can be remembered using the mnemonic Some Old Hippie, Caught Another Hippie, Tripping On Acid.
Sine = Opposite side ÷ Hypotenuse (Some Old Hippie)
Cosine = Adjacent side ÷ Hypotenuse (Caught Another Hippie)
Tangent = Opposite side ÷ Adjacent side (Tripping On Acid)
The geology fact that most people wish to remember concerns the orientation of stalactites and stalagmites. Many geology students remember this by using a mnemonic that envisions someone wearing tights being accosted by an army of mites crawling up their legs, thus: When the mites go up, the tites (tights) come down.
But hardcore geology students have to memorize many complex names regarding rocks, their properties, and the different geologic times. For example, Pregnant Cows Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak. Possibly Early Oiling Might Prevent Premature Rheumatism. This mnemonic stands for the geological time periods: Precambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurrasic, Cretaceous, Pliocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Myocene, Pileocene, Pleistocene, and Recent (Holocene).
I could go on, but you get the idea of the richness and ingenuity of science students trying to remember the vast amounts of information that is necessary to succeed in their fields. Do you have a favorite mnemonic? Please share it here by leaving a comment.
Otter picture modified from the original, by Marshal Hedin and used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.
I have often dealt in my blog with people who believe in conspiracy theories. These are individuals such as those who claim the Earth is flat and that the moon landing never happened; those who claim that the World Trade Center buildings on 911 were brought down by explosive charges and not by fires; those who claim that vaccines cause autism; those who claim that climate change isn’t real and the evidence for it is forged or altered by scientists and politicians trying to take away people’s rights and spread socialism; those who claim that the teaching of evolution is part of a conspiracy to attack religion and inject atheism into schools; or those who claim that the condensation trails left behind by flying jets are the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? What does science have to say about this matter?
The belief in conspiracy theories has only become an important area of scientific investigation in the last two decades, but scientists have made many interesting observations and proposed hypotheses about the dynamics of the process as well as those who engage in it. The research so far indicates that, despite the great diversity of conspiracy theories, the belief in them arises as a result of the same underlying and predictable psychological processes. If an individual believes in one conspiracy theory, it is very likely that this individual will believe in other conspiracy theories even if these theories are mutually contradictory. Additionally, the belief in conspiracy theories can be greatly influenced by social context. Situations that lead to crisis in a society, such as wars, natural disasters or rapid social change, or situations that lead to individuals or groups of people feeling powerless, vulnerable, or victimized, will increase the belief in conspiracy theories.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to conform to four basic principles:
1) Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences. These consequences may be mostly negative affecting things like health, interpersonal relations, and safety of individuals or groups of individuals, but conspiracy beliefs can also fuel social change in societies, with the nature of the outcome being dependent on the type of change brought about.
2) Belief in conspiracy theories is universal. This means that belief in conspiracy theories is prevalent in all human cultures and is also found both in the present and the past. This suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is part of our biology and may have arisen through natural selection. The hypothesis has been proposed that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, conspirational thinking was actually an advantage for individuals who faced intergroup conflict and aggression from other individuals who formed coalitions.
3) Belief in conspiracy theories is social, because it results in the upholding of a strong ingroup identity and the protection of this ingroup against some outgroup that is perceived to be hostile. It has been found that people who are likely to perceive their ingroup as superior, and to perceive outgroups as threatening, are more prone to belief in conspiracy theories.
4) Belief in conspiracy theories is emotional. Despite the fact that many conspiracy theories are underpinned by elaborate arguments, the evidence indicates that believers in conspiracy theories rely more on emotional and intuitive rather than analytical thinking. This may be the reason why belief in conspiracy theories can be triggered by strong emotional stimuli that produce anxiety, uncertainly, and feelings of lack of control.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to be driven by three psychological motives:
1) Epistemic Motives: These motives involve the need to reduce uncertainty by finding explanations when information is ambiguous or lacking; the need to find meaning when faced with seemingly random events; or the need to defend beliefs when they are challenged.
2) Existential Motives: These motives involve the need for individuals or groups to feel safe and in control of their environment.
3) Social Motives: These motives involve the need to maintain a positive image of oneself or of one’s ingroup. The belief in conspiracy theories may allow the individual or the group to deal with a threat to the positive image of the self or of the group by blaming others for negative outcomes.
As I explained at the beginning of this post, research into conspiracy theories is an emerging scientific field, so we need to give scientists time to gather more evidence and put to test the relevant hypotheses before we can come up with a definite theory regarding the how and why of conspiracy theories and their believers. But one of the things that I found interesting is the idea that conspirational behavior, far from being a pathology, may actually be part of our biology and may serve (or may have served) some useful purpose in our evolutionary history. This means that every one of us is capable of displaying this behavior, even without being conscious of it.
Regardless of whether conspirational thinking may be a product or our biology and serve several purposes as outlined above, I would argue that in the cases where conspiracy theories do not match reality (which is the majority), the long-term effects of leading a life divorced from said reality cannot be positive. I believe this is especially true nowadays in the age of the internet when believers in conspiracy theories band together and form networks of like-minded individuals with their own websites, and chatrooms. Such groups are easily identifiable by those who want to infiltrate their communities and exploit them.
Believers in conspiracy theories tend to view with distrust people like me who disagree with them publicly, but I think the real threat to these groups are those who agree with them in order to prod them towards some action. I have already outlined a step by step procedure by which anyone can sell snake oil. In my opinion, believers in conspiracy theories are highly vulnerable to snake oil salesmanship. This exploitation of conspiracy theory believers by unscrupulous individuals or organizations has taken place, and will continue taking place, because conspiracy theory groups tend to insulate themselves from those who are most likely in the position to help them, which in this case are those who disagree with them.
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Photograph by Damon D'Amato is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I recently had an exchange on Twitter with people who believe in the conspiracy theory of chemtrails. What are chemtrails? Before we answer this question, let’s look at the phenomena of “contrails”. Contrails are a contraction of “condensation trails”. These are the line-shaped clouds that are seen to form behind jet aircrafts. If you look up at the sky, you are very likely to spot some of these contrails being produced by jets flying high over you. Contrails are created when the water in the exhaust of the jet engines condenses to form ice crystals. If the humidity of the environment is high and the temperatures are low enough, these crystals will take up more water, grow, and the contrails will persist for hours. On the other hand, if the humidity is low or if temperatures are not cool enough, contrails will dissipate quickly.
So what’s the conspiracy?
The chemtrail crowd claims that these contrails are really the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude. Thus they call them chemtrails. Why the government does this depends on which conspiracy you believe. There are those who claim that the government is engaged in these activities for the purpose of making people sick or controlling our minds, but the most common argument is that the government is engaged in weather modification to, for example, ward off global warming, and is doing so in a secretive way. These people put forward several arguments. Among them are that the trails last too long to be normal contrails, that long-lasting contrails are only a relatively recent phenomenon, that you can see contrails form even from the tip of the wing of airplanes away from the engines, that barrels of substances claimed to be part of the spraying equipment have been photographed inside airplanes, that many patents have been issued for geoengineering (climate modification), that there are secret climate modification programs going on worldwide, and that the government has lied before in the case of other conspiracies that were exposed. About 10% of the public in the United States believes in this conspiracy, and a higher percentage believes that it’s “somewhat true”.
I did a quick search on the chemtrail issue, and as I suspected, their arguments have been conclusively rebutted dozens of times. If you are in the mood for it, you can check the following sampling of references: Environmental Research Letters, Contrail Science, Metode, Skeptical Inquirer, EPA, and Air Force.
In brief: long-lasting contrails go back to the very beginning of jet aviation way before the conspiracy even got started; contrails forming on the tips of the wings are caused by cavitation of air in humid conditions; the pictures of barrels are interconnected ballast tanks used to simulate passenger motion when testing new airplane designs; the patents for geoengineering are not proof of a conspiracy; there are ongoing programs for specific local weather modification such as cloud seeding to produce rain, and in the US these programs are out in the open and approved by laws. Finally, yes, there have been government conspiracies in the past, but that proves nothing. If you claim there is a chemtrail government conspiracy (claimed by some to span the whole globe and involving many countries), you have to prove it with evidence, and such evidence has not been found even by individuals and organizations that are not exactly pro-government.
It seemed to me that the chemtrail conspiracy proponents belong to that group of people that I call “irrational skeptics”, and my exchange with them further suggested this is the case.
When I brought up the above evidence, some chemtrail conspiracy proponents asked who was paying me. This is a very common response of irrational skeptics. I cannot be in honest disagreement with them. There must be some ulterior motive. Somebody must be “paying me” to contest their arguments. Any challenge to the conspiracy is viewed as proof of the reality of the conspiracy.
The chemtrail conspiracy proponents also wrote things like “watch the skies” or posted selected photographs of planes allegedly involved in the activity, or of barrels inside planes with no context and without addressing the explanations that debunked the arguments implied by the photographs. I realized that none of them had read any of the references I provided or tried to rebut the arguments against chemtrails contained within them. This is another characteristic of irrational skeptics: they are impervious to facts. Nothing will convince them they are wrong.
Finally, another characteristic of irrational skeptics is that they do nothing about it. Chemtrail proponents could raise money and sponsor a credible study to, for example, assess whether a regular jet airplane flying in the right conditions can produce long-lasting contrails. Imagine if the results of such a study favored their position. That would make their claims more believable and people would take them more seriously. But they don’t, because believing in the tenets of the conspiracy is more important than testing them.
In my opinion, the chemtrail conspiracy, as most conspiracies, is nothing more than a mishmash of sweeping generalizations, innuendo, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations, combined with a generous proportion of denial, paranoia, and refusal to face the facts.
Eventually the chemtrail proponents blocked me on twitter. One stated that she is praying for me that I “wake up”. To tell you the truth, I do think that many of these people believe what they claim to believe, and I feel sorry for them. It must be terrifying to live in their world believing all those contrails crisscrossing the sky are harmful chemical agents dumped by the government. These beliefs undoubtedly take a toll on their lives and those of their families. And the irony of it all is that contrails may actually be detrimental to humanity in the sense that they enhance global warming, but this is not a focus of the chemtrail conspiracy.
Picture of the contrails of a jet by Adrian Pingstone is in the public domain.