Listener Feedback Revolutions
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:
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 website.
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 website:
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:
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:
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:
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 urban legend. 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.
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