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Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 2

Donate I give my thoughts trying to solve some of your weirdest experiences.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #686
July 30, 2019
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Once again, I've visited the bottomless font of wonder by soliciting Skeptoid premium members for their weirdest stories. Today, we're going to hear a few of your mysterious experiences for the express purpose of me applying my personal powers of skeptical analysis, which will no doubt (in most cases) enrage you and turn you against me. But, as I've said before, if everyone agreed with my conclusions in every episode, it wouldn't be much of a show. Anyway this is an important exercise that we should all go through from time to time. Follow the Three C's: Challenge the story as you heard it, Consider alternate explanations, and Conclude which one best fits the facts and what's known of the natural world.

The Sizzling Bomber

This comes from listener Ray, whose dad flew a B-25 in World War II:

He told me once that he had been flying around a thunderstorm, there was a lot of St. Elmo's Fire on the wings, and his co-pilot looked over his shoulder and said "Rags!, Rags, look!" and there on the floor behind the pilot and co-pilot's seat on a B-25 it's a kind of aluminum sill, was a ball about the size of a softball. He called it ball lightning. It was spitting and sparking and rolled slowly from one side of the aluminum sill to the other before it popped and disappeared in a flash. That was his encounter with ball lightning, and I know that science says there is no such thing, but I was wondering if you could give me your take on it.

I think two things are going on here. First, it's not quite accurate that science says there is no such thing. As you probably know from episode #192 which was all about ball lightning, the science on this is highly fragmented. While it's true that no empirical evidence for ball lightning exists, many scientists in have proposed hypotheses to explain it. Here are the four points I make in the episode:

    1. Ball lightning is not reproducible in the lab (microwave oven plasma doesn't count). All known forms of electrical discharge are.

    2. There is no standard description of what ball lightning looks like or how it behaves. Reports of its color, its size, its speed, its sound, the conditions under which it appears, its behavior, its shape, and its duration are all over the map.

    3. Not a single photograph or video of ball lightning exists that is considered reliable and not otherwise explainable.

    4. Electromagnetic theory makes no prediction that anything like ball lightning need exist. It does predict all known forms of electrical discharge.

And when you read any of the hypotheses proposed — and even presented as definitive on sources like Wikipedia — they clearly don't apply to the vast majority of reports, all rely on theoretical conditions never actually observed in nature, and they're all usually from scientists working outside their field.

The second thing I think of when I hear your dad's story is that it's the same as the one ball lightning story that's by far the most often repeated and dramatized on television: the account of radio astronomer Roger Jennison published in 1969. Virtually any article or film about ball lightning retells Jennison's story, which is essentially identical to your dad's. He was on an airliner, and saw what he described as ball lightning come rolling down the aisle. For my money, the chances that these recollections of your dad's 75-year-old story have been colored by these pop-culture dramatizations are too high to give much credence to the details you think you remember. (Also, Jennison was a big believer in dowsing and other fringe beliefs in addition to ball lightning — so take his stories with a grain of salt — as you should all stories.)

The Teapot Trance

This creepy case is from Max in England:

One strange thing that happened to me many years ago, when I was about 19, I had a dream one night that I was at work making some tea, and all of a sudden it became very dark in the office, because of the clouds going across the sun as sometimes happens, and my colleague at work called me who's in the office, leant towards the window and said "Oh, it's become very dark out there." About three days later, I was at work making tea in the side room as in the dream. Suddenly the floor went dark and I thought this is very familiar. And my colleague leaned forward, looked out the window and said "It's become very dark out there," exactly as I'd dreamt it. It was very, very unusual. It wasn't déjà vu, I've had déjà vu plenty of times. Very curious sensation. It wasn't anything like that. I seemed to literally dream the future. Never been able to explain it. Possibly all I can really say is coincidence, very odd.

For those of you who heard last week's episode, you might be saying to yourself that this sounds very similar to Kevin's story, in which he saw his dad with a splinted finger, and suddenly realized that he'd had a strange thought of a finger and his dad earlier that day — seemingly, too much of a coincidence. The reason I wanted to include another example of a story that's substantially identical is to make the point that even with the relatively small sample size of premium Skeptoid members whom I invited to contribute stories, we're still likely to receive duplicates because some of these phenomena that seem extraordinary are actually common.

But a quick repeat, for those who may not have heard it. I talked about some of the research done on déjà vu, the familiar phenomenon where you suddenly get the feeling that you've experienced something previously. What seems clear is that — according to the research — what probably happened to you is that your brain, in the normal course of processing your colleague making tea, experienced some type of synaptic misfire when it was seeking out similar memories to compare against the current perception, as it's always doing. Your brain likely constructed a false memory using similar, but not necessarily identical, actual memories. Your memory of that dream may not have even existed until the moment of déjà vu in the office; and once it did, it became as real to you as all your other memories, and probably no one could convince you that you didn't actually have that dream, at least not the way you remember it now.

Brains are awesome, and also freaky.

The Flaming Tree

Here is a mystical tale from premium member Dave Lucas:

A few years ago my sister and brother-in-law were on a jungle safari during a holiday in Borneo. Suddenly, the animal chatter from the trees fell strangely silent. They then spotted a curious light in the treetops in the distance. They described it as resembling a football-sized ball of burning rubber with small flaming drips falling from it. My brother-in-law tried to capture it through the viewfinder of his video camera, but although he got a fix on the tree, the object itself was not visible through the viewfinder. When they asked the guide what it was, he told them to change the subject, and he would tell them tomorrow. The following morning, he explained that they had seen the Mondau, the spirit of the forest. The spirit would grow angry if anyone were to talk about it the same day they saw it, and curse them with bad luck. Skeptoid has dealt with strange lights, which as I recall, were manifestations of the mirage effect. Might this be something similar, and is the silence of the animals connected?

It's true that in Borneo, such beliefs in forest spirits are commonplace. And it's not just the one you named; there are many such spirits, or hantu. When in the forest, behave as a respectful guest in someone else's home. Don't be loud, obnoxious, irreverent; don't take anything or talk about them. Go with someone the spirits are likely to recognize. If you trouble the spirits, they'll follow you and you may have an accident or get lost. The guide's warning was consistent with a common and deep-rooted tradition.

So really, your friends could have said or done just about anything and they would have received this admonition from the guide. His remarks say nothing about whatever they may have seen in the tree — he'd have said the same thing whether they'd tripped over a log, called out loudly to one another, or just rudely pointed their camera around the forest.

So what did they see? I've no idea at all, and wouldn't presume to speculate from a single third-hand anecdote which, by the time it's gotten to my interpretation, is sufficiently distorted from their original perception that I know it's pointless to hypothesize. Sorry if that's anticlimactic, but it's the only honest answer I can give.

The Invisible Keys

This next one comes from listener Kent Neal:

I always place my car keys in the same location when I come in, on the counter next to the phone. Not too long ago, I went to get my keys and they weren't there. This was puzzling, and I proceeded to look in any and all other places I might have put them, including in the car. They weren't there after fruitless search where I looked many times at the spot where they always were placed. I was ready to give up, and I went back one last time and there they were, on the counter next to the phone. They had obviously been there the entire time, even though I had looked directly at that spot at least six or eight times. I didn't see them. That's my unusual occurrence.

If I might contradict you: it's a very common occurrence. There are many different types of agnosias, which are inabilities to identify objects we see. Most types of agnosia are associated with neurological problems, but some aren't and can happen to anyone. Looking for needed items like keys or glasses but not seeing them are among the most frequently reported.

Such agnosias are related to inattentional blindness, which is when we don't notice something obvious in our field of vision because our attention is distracted toward other things. The famous invisible gorilla experiment is a familiar example of this. There are basically two "throttles" controlling your likelihood to notice the keys when you're looking right at them. First is your attention level; if you're running around stressed because you're late to an appointment, part of your attention is diverted to thinking about that appointment. Second is a key area of study in this phenomenon, and that's at what point in the brain's processing of a visual scene items will be consciously perceived. Some evidence suggests early on, some evidence suggests later after all the processing is complete. Thus, the inability to see your keys when you're looking right at them may be due to how much you're distracted by the reason you need them, or by at what point in your brain's processing of the scene it tells you "keys", and probably by some combination of the two.

Next time it happens, realize what just happened, and take a moment to appreciate how totally awesome science is.

Now, obviously, I probably didn't solve anyone's mysteries today. But that's OK, because the solution is not as important as the process. So long as we keep our minds open to the possibility that science may offer a solution to life's mysteries, and we embrace the process of accepting and evaluating evidence, no weird story will ever remain ultimately out of our grasp.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 2." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 30 Jul 2019. Web. 8 Dec 2019. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4686>

 

References & Further Reading

Hamzelou, J. "Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories." New Scientist. New Scientist Ltd., 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Jul. 2019. <https://www.newscientist.com/article/2101089-mystery-of-deja-vu-explained-its-how-we-check-our-memories/>

Jennison, R. "Ball Lightning." Nature. 1 Nov. 1969, Volume 224, Number 5222: 895.

McHugh, J. Hantu Hantu: An account of ghost belief in modern Malaya. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1959.

Rock, I., Linnet, C., Grant, P., Mack, A. "Perception without Attention: Results of a new method." Cognitive Psychology. 1 Oct. 1992, Volume 24, Number 4: 502-534.

Simons, D., Chabris, C. "Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events." Perception. 20 Jun. 1999, Volume 28, Number 9: 1059-1074.

Smithies, M. A Javanese Boyhood: An ethnographic biography. Singapore: Federal Publications, 1982.

 

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