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Vikings Exhibition at Discovery Times Square: Setting History Straight-ish

Posted on Feb. 16, 2016 by | Comments (7)

Entrance to Vikings Exhibit, Field Museum.

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit a Vikings exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I had been invited to Chicago to give a Skeptics in the Pub talk about the erroneous and distinctly odd belief that Leif Erickson discovered Bigfoot in Vinland. I gave the talk on Saturday and went to the exhibit on Sunday. It was a whole Viking-themed weekend—the best kind of weekend. Bigfoot was noticeably absent from the exhibit (and, indeed, the Field Museum in general).

In the last year, I have moved from Wisconsin to New Jersey, and the Viking exhibit has moved from Chicago to New York. I’m tempted to visit it again. I enjoyed it the first time, although it made me a little sad because it reminded me that I was not able to visit the British Museum’s 2014 exhibit, Vikings: Life and Legends. The two exhibits take very different approaches to the Vikings. The British Museum emphasized warfare, stating in one of its press releases:

New interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Eve Siebert

Eve Siebert contributes to the Skepticality podcast and is a panelist on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. She taught college writing and literature for many years. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from Saint Louis University. Her primary area of study is Old and Middle English literature, with secondary concentrations in Old Norse and Shakespeare. Read Eve’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.


Taking a Shot at the Boot Hill Ghost

Posted on Jan. 21, 2016 by | Comments (6)

In the online world of allegedly paranormal photos, you will find one referred to as the Boot Hill Ghost. In this modern photo (taken in 1996) a man in the foreground stands in Tombstone Arizona’s famous Boot Hill Cemetery adorned in classic cowboy gear, wearing a cowboy hat, holding a 6-shooter. But it isn’t his steely eyes or checkered kerchief that make the black & white photo so popular on the Internet. Like many alleged ghost photos, the mysterious element was allegedly not seen when the photo was taken. In this case, the strangeness is the clear and obvious form of a man’s torso rising from the soil behind and to the right of the cowboy. The photographer was Ike Clanton (yes, a descendant of the OK Corral Clantons) and the proprietor of a “haunted saloon” in modern Tombstone.

Here is the photo (shared here for the purpose of critical review):

The boot hill ghost photo — hosted at ClantonGang.com

The boot hill ghost photo. See it in context at ClantonGang.com

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Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.


Good Grief, Skip! Murder, Mourning, or Anthropomorphism?

Posted on Jan. 17, 2016 by | Comments (14)
Skippy the bush kangaroo

Giving Skippy human like expressions and agency was more fantasy than fact.

If you’re over the age of thirty and grew up in Australia, there’s a good chance you know who Skippy is. This famous kangaroo—a friend ever true—was the Aussie equivalent of Lassie, forever helping her human companion, Sonny Hammond, get in and out of trouble.

With their upright stance and small hands, kangaroos are readily anthropomorphised. That is to say, it’s easy to attribute kangaroos with human-like traits. Just recently, a heart-breaking story of a kangaroo mourning a lost companion did the rounds through Australian social media. Photographer Evan Switzer chanced upon a dying female kangaroo being cradled in the forearms of a male, a small joey standing nearby.

“He would lift her up and she wouldn’t stand she’d just fall to the ground, he’d nudge her, stand besides her…it was a pretty special thing, he was just mourning the loss of his mate,” Evan was reported saying in the Daily Mail.

Only the kangaroo wasn’t mourning for its departed mate. It was…well, for a lack of a better term, turned on. Sexually. And might have even been the murderer.
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Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.


Is It Irrational to Play the Lottery?

Posted on Jan. 12, 2016 by | Comments (55)

With the recent Powerball mania I thought it would be a good time to talk about how to tell a sucker bet from a fair bet, and whether playing the lottery is a rational behavior.

Whenever the lottery comes up, people tend to discuss the astronomical odds of winning, holding it up as the best reason to avoid buying a ticket. However, it is not simply the odds of winning that determines if a bet is rational, at least the way psychologists define the term. A rational bet is a fair bet, and what determines if a bet is fair is something called the expected return.

An expected return is the payoff that one expects to receive—the amount, in proportion to the bet, that one expects to gain. A fair bet is one in which the expected return, in the long run, is zero. In other words, one expects to break even. If you expect to do better than break even, you are at an advantage. The odds of winning are part of expected return, but the payout-to-bet ratio is equally important in determining advantage.

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Barbara Drescher

Barbara Drescher taught quantitative and cognitive psychology, primarily at California State University, Northridge for a decade. Barbara was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a Phi Kappa Phi Scholar. Her research has been recognized with several awards and the findings discussed in Psychology Today. More recently, Barbara developed educational materials for the James Randi Educational Foundation. Read Barbara’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.


Uncovering Archaeology Fantasies

Posted on Dec. 30, 2015 by | Comments (6)

When I started the podcast MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic Magazine, one of our earliest episodes was going to be about “giants.” I didn’t know what angle I wanted to take on the topic because there are many kinds of legendary giants, but ultimately I decided to look into the famous hoax known as The Cardiff Giant. And when it came to picking a guest, only one person came to mind: Dr. Kenny Feder.

Like many skeptics I don’t trust my own (or anyone else’s) memory. I don’t recall if I first saw Feder doing his damned best to bring some sensible skepticism to any of the many documentaries he’s been on, or whether I first heard him in 2008 when he was interviewed on Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe #59. I suspect it was on National Geographic’s Is it Real? dealing with Atlantis in 2006. Regardless, I bought his book Frauds, Myths and Mysteries and was blown away by it. As I am fond of saying, there is more solid and useful archaeological skepticism on the cover of that book than in the entire run of History’s Ancient Aliens.

Feder’s popularity on MonsterTalk has not been equaled. His entertaining, clear and logical explanations of mysterious topics related to archaeology are our most popular episodes. But now, thanks to the work of fellow archaeologist Sara Head, you can get large doses of Feder and fascinating deep science-based discussions of many of the fringe topics which frustrate skeptics so much.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.


Dark Matter and Periodic Mass Extinctions? Not So Fast!

Posted on Dec. 15, 2015 by | Comments (24)

Dark-Matter-cover

The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

—Thomas Henry Huxley

In recent weeks, physicist Lisa Randall has been promoting her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. She even spoke about her latest work for the recent meeting of the Skeptic Society Science Salon on November 22. Naturally, any book which talks about such sexy topics as astronomy and dinosaurs is guaranteed to get lots of fawning press coverage, with little or no scrutiny from the scientific community. Nearly all the coverage and reviews of the book I have seen are either by science journalists without the appropriate background, or by astronomers and physicists. They were a bit skeptical about whether there was any strong evidence for her idea that waves of dark matter contributed to mass extinctions on earth, but could not rule it out. To her credit Randall made clear that she is proposing a hypothesis to be further tested, not a fully complete theory for which she is confident is correct. Like the good scientist that she is, Randall emphasizes that she could be wrong.

This is  not a review of the entire book, which is generally well written, and explains the complicated physics of dark matter and other topics is a clear and lively fashion. Unfortunately, the urge to tie her topic to sexy ideas like periodic extinctions and impact model for the end of the dinosaurs got the most press coverage, even if the book itself is more cautious about these topics. Still, it was a mistake to invoke the outdated and debunked ideas like the notion of periodic impacts causing extinctions, which seriously detracts from the credibility of an otherwise solid piece of science writing.

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Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


I Don’t Know What You Mean

Posted on Dec. 11, 2015 by | Comments (8)
WHAT-YOU-MEAN-2015b

Painting by Daniel Loxton, c.1999. Acrylic on canvas. 24″x36″.

The journal Judgment and Decision Making has stirred considerable interest with a recent paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” by Pennycook et al (read PDF). The authors conducted four surveys designed to explore differing individual reactions to “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” That is, the authors are “interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee.”1

Skeptics naturally share this interest.

The studies presented survey participants with vague, conceptually meaningless, buzzword-laden statements and asked them to rate the “relative profundity of each statement on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound).” The included statements were generated by two online tools: “The New Age Bullshit Generator” and Wisdomofchopra.com, which “constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g., ‘Imagination is inside exponential space time events’).”2 Some of the studies also included motivational aphorisms, simple factual statements, and actual tweets selected from Chopra’s Twitter feed,3 such as this one:

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 10.36.51 AM

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Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


So… Who ARE You Gonna Call?

Posted on Dec. 03, 2015 by | Comments (7)

Outside of Junior Skeptic (my primary ongoing project) a surprising amount of my professional output—most of my blogging, stage appearances, op-eds (PDF), and interviews—is given over to the oddly controversial argument that my field should exist.

It’s my opinion that “scientific” skepticism should be acknowledged as a distinct field of study with a unique mandate: the critical, science-informed, scholarly examination of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other fringe claims. Consequently, I’ve rejected (PDF) periodic suggestions that skepticism should shift its focus from fringe topics toward arguably “more important” matters, or that skepticism ought to be subsumed as a side-project within some other sphere (such as “science,” humanism, or atheism).

Colleagues such as Steve Novella, Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss (video) often find themselves drawn to such discussions. I tend to agree with these and other traditionalist skeptics about the most suitable scope for scientific skepticism: “testable” (that is, investigable) claims. In addition, I’ve argued that it’s desirable for skeptics to emphasize a specialized core subject matter within that “testable claims” scope: pseudoscience and the paranormal. Not an exclusive concern with fringe claims, mind—that’s more restrictive than I or anyone wants to see—just an ongoing (and historically well-established) emphasis upon claims of that type.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


The Plane Truth: Noted Skeptic’s Newly Published (Posthumous) Book About Flat Earth Theories

Posted on Nov. 19, 2015 by | Comments (4)
Explore Bob Schadewald's last book, on the topic of most specialized skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

Explore Bob Schadewald’s final project, a book on the topic of his most specialized area of skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

I’m very pleased to learn that The Plane Truth, the unfinished final work of skeptical scholarship by the late Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), has now been prepared for publication and released online for free. You can read the book in its web version here, where you also find the EPUB ebook version available for download.

During his life, Bob Schadewald was the world’s leading skeptical expert on the history of flat-Earth advocacy. The pseudoscientific notion that the Earth is a flat disk may seem as quaint as it is preposterous, but so-called “Zetetic Astronomy” enjoyed a surprisingly strong period of public prominence in the UK and US during the 19th century—attracting attention from debunkers of the period such as Alfred Russel Wallace1 (see Skeptic Vol. 20, No. 3) and Richard Anthony Proctor, and prompting reflections from later thinkers including George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. During the 20th century the relative sophistication of Zetetic Astronomy collapsed into muddled conspiracy theories, parody, and ultra-fundamentalist Biblical literalism; nevertheless, flat-Earth advocacy continues to this day.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


The 10 Percent Brain Myth

Posted on Oct. 17, 2015 by | Comments (12)

This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 37 (published in 2010 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 15, No. 4), which is a quick ten-page tour of the “Top Ten Busted Myths.” Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included one or two citations here for your interest:

brain-myth
Have you heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains? Imagine what we could accomplish if we could discover how to use that other 90 percent! Could we discover an untapped potential for incredible psychic powers?

There’s only one problem: none of that is true. Humans use every part of our brains.

CONTINUE READING THIS POST…

Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at Skeptic.com and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.


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