Listener Feedback Revolutions

Another batch of listener emails answered and dissected. And served.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #274
September 6, 2011
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Once again it's time to answer some emails and criticism from listeners. Often I'm asked if all of my email is as hostile as the ones I choose for these episodes, but no, feedback as a whole is overwhelmingly positive. The ones I choose for feedback episodes are those that represent really common objections to the episodes, or that raise the same issues I hear from non-skeptics in daily life. Basically, I try to find those pieces of feedback that are the most useful to answer.

Keith from London wrote in about my episode on the Scole Experiment, a series of séances staged by the Society for Psychical Research in order to prove to the world that séances actually represent the interaction of spirits and the living. The shows were performed for the SPR by professional séance performers in their dedicated séance room. Unfortunately, the only people who witnessed the shows and believed them were the SPR's own researchers, who were all already firm believers in spirits:

I was lucky enough to meet Prof. Arthur Ellison and Montague Keen with my wife at the SPR and over dinners after SPR meetings in London. They were sincere, incredibly experienced and sharp observers and absolutely convinced of the phenomena they saw, and which were also were witnessed abroad at several locations and in front of NASA scientists. The light phenomena (the full range) could not have been reproduced. Read the full Report for these. Also Richard Wiseman said at the "Scole Study Day" in 1999 (I was there with my wife and friends) that the phenomena were "very impressive" - then sat down quite quickly. [In fact, Prof. Wiseman described the séances to me as "a load of rubbish". - BD] Five years after, Prof. Fontana and Montague Keen wrote a short article saying that still no-one had suggested any method of reproduction. This still stands. This is an issue of a real unknown, nonphysical intelligent consciousness, intruding into our own personal space and many just cannot handle this, quite understandably. For what it's worth I am a particle physics postgraduate in qualifications.

Keith, you have to understand something. NASA scientists and particle physics postgraduates have completely irrelevant expertise for evaluating séances. If you were a professional magician, or had other experience in the art of deception, then you'd have my attention. Séances are a parlor trick, they are one of the oldest types of magic shows. They are designed to fool people who think they're too smart to be fooled.

You're trying to look at it from the physics perspective: for example, how was this crystal ball made to spontaneously illuminate; and you're looking in your bag of particle physics tricks for some way that electric energy could cross over from another dimension. But if your expertise was in séance performance, you'd chuckle at how easy it is to take a felt-cloaked laser pointer and fool all the particle physicists into thumbing through their textbooks looking up light-producing interactions.

I am perfectly open to the possibility that somewhere there are some séance performers who truly are calling up powers from beyond the grave. This is rationally equivalent to a stage magician who actually does create real rabbits out of thin air and pull them from a hat, using some new undiscovered power. Both of these are equally possible. When they are convincingly documented to happen, it will become real science, and I'll be doing a podcast explaining it.

For now, we have Fontana, Keen, and the other Scole promoters claiming that "the phenomena could not have been duplicated". They have to be willfully ignorant of the magic and mentalism professions to say this. Séance performers duplicate them every single day, and any professional in this art can show you half a dozen ways to do each trick — but I guarantee you won't find the techniques in a particle physics textbook.

Calvin from Rochester, New York writes in about Morgellons Disease, a term coined a few years ago by a mom who couldn't understand why fabric threads kept appearing in her toddler son's scabs. She was of the opinion that his body must be extruding them, and she wouldn't accept the explanation of doctors who told her that they were simply threads of blankets or clothing that got caught in the sticky tissue. So she invented her own disease, and received so much media attention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened an investigation, with the updated findings on a special web site.

I am a 59-year old Social Worker-2years into a PhD program. I got this disease one year ago. I am not delusional. But I have worked with individuals who are delusional. I am suffering the typical symptoms of this infestation, and I am concerned because the CDC-should by this time be releasing information regarding this disease. They are MUM!!! Medical doctors should not be so quick to diagnose as delusional. They don't know!!! That is until they come down with the disease themselves. When that begin happening then there will be a change in there perception. It would be better to tell a patient "I simply do not know-rather than diagnosing them as being delusional when they are having an experience that is so real to them. To diagnose in conditions like this shown the most unprofessional and cocky attitude possible.

I've received many such emails as Calvin's, making the same basic charge: that doctors dismiss these sufferers as crazy or delusional. His call for the CDC to come out and say that they don't know is, in fact, exactly what they already do say on their web site:

We do not know the cause of this condition or whether this condition is new... The factors associated with acquiring this condition are unknown. At this time, doctors and scientists do not know what causes this condition.

As discussed in my episode, there are two things that we do know about treating Morgellons: one, that it can be successfully treated with psychotherapy to address the patient's underlying stress; and two, that nearly all patients refuse such treatment on the grounds that it does not endorse the existence of a pathogen which they insist is the real cause. One of the symptoms of acute stress is skin lesions. When scratched, they can become open sores or scabs, which then collect fibers from the environment. Treating the patient for stress, when successful, often completely resolves the condition. But patients are usually hostile to this suggestion, which then makes them even more stressed.

The CDC, however, is in the position of needing to establish whether there might actually be an additional cause for Morgellons, i.e., this elusive pathogen that many sufferers believe in. So far they haven't found one.

Chris from Vancouver wrote in about my episode on New Age Energy, in which I discussed that the use of the word "energy" by New Age enthusiasts is usually wrong. Energy is a measurement of work potential; it's not a hovering, glowing aura of power; nor does it have any scientific relevance to the metaphysical concept of "life force" that permeates New Age beliefs:

I am always skeptical of the skeptic with a closed mind. There is in fact some evidence for the existence of this "subtle energy". It seems it is not of the E=mc2 type but something new to science. There is equipment that is able to reveal some type of field around a living person, I say living because no field is detected around a dead person, that should tell you something. Also this field appears to be in constant motion, no, the effects of body heat causing it has been eliminated. Blockages in the flow have apparently been associated with some types of disease or injury. The beauty of this is the experiment can be repeated with the same results. Most people will say "I have never heard or seen of such a device" implying because of that it cannot exist. Well, if you do not look you most assuredly will not find.

It is insufficient to simply assert that these things exist, or that there is evidence without describing its nature. We do know a lot about the phenomena Chris lists. For example, the various methods of so-called "aura photography" such as kirlian, infrared, and color substitution imaging, are all well understood and have nothing to do with any sort of new, undiscovered type of "energy". The idea that an undetectable energy flows through "meridians" in the body, and that blockages of this are the cause of disease, comes from the prescientific notions described in acupuncture and chiropractic. It's been exhaustively tested, and we've learned that the positions of the needles make no difference, thus effectively ruling out the existence of the hypothesized meridians. Changing your mind to accept what we've learned through science is not closed-mindedness. Closed-mindedness is better defined as the refusal to change your mind based on what we've been able to learn, and to insist upon ideas that have been conclusively falsified.

Joey from San Jose, CA responded to my episode about an ALS patient who was being duped into buying useless therapies developed by the early 20th century celebrity psychic Edgar Cayce:

id like to know if [Dunning] has ever read cayce, or if hes just against stuff not approves by modern science

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

He then offers a link, presumably to assist me in researching Cayce further:

It's a perfectly fair question. A lot of people regard the "approved by modern science" idea as an "us vs. them" type of conflict. There's what "we" do; and there's what "scientists" say we should do. I believe this perception of science as some kind of foe has thoroughly harmful ramifications throughout society. I look at science as the tool that we all use, every day; from deciding whether a curb is too high to step off, to running my computer, to eating healthy. Applying science to life is a good thing. When science tells us that something doesn't work, like jumping off the roof will break my leg, or that psychic healing has never healed anything under controlled conditions; then I can answer Joey's question with a yes. Yes Joey, I am opposed to charging people money for something that's proven not to work, by lying to them and telling them that it does work. It's not about choosing sides in this imaginary "people vs. science" battle. It's about using the tools available to us to know what's real and what's bogus.

And to wrap up today, a young lad by the name of Andrew from Grand Rapids asked this age-old question:

dear mythbusters is it true that if you go out side you will get sick yourbiggestfan andrew

Andrew, I'm afraid you've confused me with someone else. I am not the Mythbusters, but like them, I do try to help people understand the fact behind the fiction. The idea that going outside, especially on a cold day, will get you sick is an old wive's tale. The outdoors is, usually, a more germ-free environment than indoors. And if it's cold outside, the presence of viable viruses floating around is far less than what we'd expect to find in a warm, human infested indoors. Cold weather often makes people stay indoors with one another, where cold viruses are mostly likely to be spread; and this is probably how the belief got started.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

CDC. "Unexplained Dermopathy." Official Site. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Jun. 2007. Web. 15 May. 2010. <>

CEC. "Energy Story. Chapter 1. What is Energy?" Energy Quest. California Energy Commission, 22 Apr. 2002. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <>

Devita-Raeburn, E. "The Morgellons Mystery." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 1 Mar. 2007. Web. 14 May. 2010. <>

Keen, M., Ellison, A., Fontana, D. "The Scole Report." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. 1 Nov. 1999, Volume 58, Part 220.

Novella, S. "Through the Looking Glass of Acupuncture Research." NeuroLogica. New England Skeptical Society, 17 Nov. 2008. Web. 2 Sep. 2011. <>

Singh, S., Ernst, E. Trick or Treatment, The undeniable facts about alternative medicine. New York: Bantam Press, 2008.

Wiseman, R., Greening, E., Smith, M. "Belief in the paranormal and suggestion in the seance room." British Journal of Psychology. 1 Aug. 2003, Volume 94, Issue 3: 285–297.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback Revolutions." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 6 Sep 2011. Web. 13 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 21 comments

Marcus, where did you get the virus? After that everything is irrelevant.

If you get enough contagion you will get crook. The most likely place for me to get sick was at work or at home. I cant say I was never considered an out door worker.

Secondly, surfers and fishos would be the sickliest lot of our population if going outside and getting cold was a consideration.

I am looking forward to that first summer bream or lizard this year. AAAACChhoooo.....

Henk V, sin city, Oz
September 7, 2011 3:41am

HI Brian, nice to meet you. I have to take issue with almost everything you said in this piece regarding the Scole Experiments, and of course I will then listen to your podcast as that is clearly going to get us further.

I hope you will forgive my pedanticism, but

1. The Scole Experiment, a series of séances WAS NOT staged by the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR were asked to investigate the phenomena, and some members did. They did not originate it or finance it and were not involved at all except as investigtaors.

2. "The shows were performed for the SPR by professional séance performers in their dedicated séance room." The Scole Group were hardly professional seance performers. A more normal bunch of people hard to imagine, and this was NOT their livelihood, not did they take money from SPR?

3. "Unfortunately, the only people who witnessed the shows and believed them were the SPR's own researchers, who were all already firm believers in spirits"

This is absolutely wrong. Firstly dozens of people not associated in any way with the SPR witnessed the phenomena; secondly the suggestion SPR members are "firm believers in spirits" is ludicrous. A few may be. Prof Richard Wiseman, Prof Chris French and Dr Susan Blackmore will be surprised to find they have embraced spiritualism! The SPR holds no corporate opinions.

I am running out of space so I will just note the SPR report is far from uncritical, and contains a minority report which does not support Scole?

CJ Romer, Cheltenham UK
September 7, 2011 6:15am

"and were not involved at all except as investigtaors."
So they didn't stage the poor quality investigations, they ONLY carried them out.
Hardly a convincing argument.

" Firstly dozens of people not associated in any way with the SPR witnessed the phenomena"
Yes, but Brian emphised the ony people who witnessed the experiments AND believed them, the rest, like Richard Wisemen seem to have been failed to be impressed.

Tom H, Kent
September 7, 2011 10:30am

Hey Tom, firstly how do you know the investigations were of poor quality? The investigation was conducted by Prof. Arthur Ellison, Prof. David Fontana, Prof. Alan Gauld, and Prof. Donald West and by invitation professional stage magician James Webster, an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle. Ther emay have been others who had sittings, I don't know, but you may have already noticed one issue with the summary give here.

Webster is an experienced magician - and found according to his testimony in the report that he did not feel the phenomena could be produced by conjuring. Of course as early SPR member Baggaly said, magicians are the easiest people to convince of anything - and like Carrington and Fielding two other SPR investigators in to the supposed physical mediumship of Eusapia Palladino, and authors of the Fielding Report of 1904 where they cautiously accepted her phenomena, well they all had stage conjuring experience.

The claim we need more magicians in psychical research is one that frequently drives me nuts, because they have been employed since the 1880's in exactly this role. Another example was during the Scientific American investigation of Mina Crandon, aka "Margery". Randi seems to have created the myth they were not with Project Alpha?

I don't happen to be convinced by seance room phenomena: like many SPR members I think Brian is right to be critical, but have you actually read the report, where after all West Gauld and Cornell argue against the phenomena?

CJ Romer, Cheltenham UK
September 7, 2011 2:06pm

Brian says, "I believe this perception of science as some kind of foe has thoroughly harmful ramifications throughout society." I agree. I hope that scientists, skeptics, and science writers will put significant attention on this problem, and how to improve the situation.

An element of that is looking at how we discuss and debate science issues, and the way we use language. Hence, I'm disappointed with Brian's presentation on "energy". It is unscientific, inaccurate and counterproductive to insist that the only correct and meaningful definition is: "Energy is a measurement of work potential."

Worse yet to assert, as Brian does in his linked podcast on New Age Energy, Skeptoid #01, that "In fact, energy is not really a noun at all." Any dictionary will tell you that energy is a noun, and those that I checked gave Brian's as the sixth, eighth, or ninth definition. Our cherished technical definitions come near the bottom of the list of common uses for a word. It hurts the cause of science to assert that a term, as used by the majority of English speakers, "is usually wrong".

On the contrary, it is very important to teach society that although words have many meanings and functions in everyday life, within science, they are used with great specificity, precision, and consistency. If we could get the majority of people to understand that concept, the rest of science would be much easier to convey. Then people might stop saying that "evolution is just a theory."

Derek, Santa Fe, NM
September 7, 2011 2:51pm

Science is disseminated very efficiently in society. People just dont understand that to have a "working knowledge" they have to do some work.

Mud, (Oz) Sin City NSW,
September 10, 2011 1:06pm

"Calvin from Rochester, New York writes in about Morgellons Disease, a term coined a few years ago by a mom who couldn't understand why fabric threads kept appearing in her toddler son's scabs"

Thanks to the masterful work of Dr Karl, we know that this sort of pathogen actually has its native environment within the navel, where it produces blue lint.

Chad H, Glasgow UK
September 12, 2011 2:25pm

Chad, sadly folk dont issue intelligence past where they best.

What I like about Karl is...he will tell you where he is wrong and then make it even more science based.

I am still waiting on his cranberry adjustment....

mud, Sinful and unmerciful Centre, sin city, Oz
June 8, 2012 5:38am

Derek, while energy is a noun, not a verb, its definition is what Brian said. All the dictionaries I consulted have agreed so far. It is important to insist upon the meaning of words-otherwise, we can hardly communicate. The New Agers definition is, quite simply, wrong.

Michael, Denver, Colorado
December 11, 2012 11:48pm

Hi Brian,
You may be interested in the following:
More Evidence that Morgellons Disease is an Infection, not a Delusion
The Charles E Holman Foundation Medical Advisor Suggests New Name for Mystery Disease Based on latest Research.

London,UK May 02, 2013

The prestigious F1000 Research journal has published yet another paper linking the controversial Morgellons disease (MD) to a spirochetal bacteria. Until recently, MD was widely believed in the medical community to be purely psychological in origin; however, this latest in a string of new publications strengthens the evidence that sufferers are anything but delusional. Internist/Dermatologist Peter Mayne of Laurieton, NSW, Australia is the principal author of the latest scientific article on MD, Morgellons: a novel dermatological perspective as the multisystem infective disease borreliosis. The co-authors in this international team of collaborators include: Dermatologist Dr. John English from Nottingham University, Nottingham, UK; Psychiatrist Dr. Edward Kilbane from Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA; Jennie Burke, Director of Australian Biologics, Sydney, NSW, Australia; Veterinary microbiologist Marianne J. Middelveen from Calgary, Alberta, Canada; and Internist Dr. Raphael B. Stricker from San Francisco, CA, USA. Below is a link to
the entire report.

Patrem 1, Johannesburg South Africa
July 7, 2015 10:35am

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