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Staring at Men Who Stare at Goats

November 2009

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The Men Who Stare at Goats had so much potential as a film given the bizarre and comical nature of the weird things the United States government believed about the paranormal in its two-decade long secret psychic spy program, so wonderfully captured by the British investigative journalist John Ronson in his book of the same title. Give Hollywood some credit for at least keeping his book title (a rarity indeed in Hollywood because, you know, producers and directors always know what’s best for your book). Unfortunately, if you saw the trailer for the film, you saw most of the funniest bits, with only a few more gems scattered throughout. This is a shame because with four major stars in the film it could have done much better than the $13.3 million it grossed in its opening weekend. This was slightly better than the UFO thriller The Fourth Kind ($12.5 million), and Paranormal Activity ($8.6 million), although the latter film was produced for about $15,000 and has accumulated a staggering 45-day gross of $97.4 million, empirical evidence that the paranormal still pays, and pays very well!

At the very end of the credits of The Men Who Stare at Goats, as Boston’s foot-stomping song “More Than a Feeling” blasts along, a disclaimer rolls by at eye-blurring speed, basically saying that most of the characters and plot line in the film are entirely made up and have next to no connection to Ronson’s book or what really happened in the psychic spy program. Ain’t that the truth. The premise is so contrived as to be almost painful (if only it were funny, which it wasn’t): the wife of Ewan McGregor’s journalist character leaves him for his senior editor, a one-armed creepo with a black handed prosthetic that was apparently attractive to the smitten wife, and so he sets out to prove his journalistic/husbandly manhood by trying to get embedded in the U.S. army during the Iraqi invasion. Along the way he runs into George Clooney’s army psychic spy character and gets pulled into doing a story about what the U.S. government did back in the 1970s and 1980s. The bit about men staring at goats to try to kill them is true. The part about playing the theme song from Barney the purple dinosaur as a torture weapon is also true. The army officer who tried to run through walls also happened, with precisely the same result as in the movie: the wall’s atoms repelled his atoms with the predictable result. (And why, oh why, would they not use the real name of that officer: Major General Albert Stubblebine III? You couldn’t make up a better name!) I think that’s about it. Oh, guys did wear their hair longer then and had mustaches.

It is with some irony, then, that at the beginning of the film a line appears: “More of this is true than you would believe.” Okay, so what is true and what isn’t? Here is what I know. In 1995, the story broke that for the previous 25 years the U.S. Army had invested $20 million in a highly secret psychic spy program called Star Gate (also Grill Flame and Scanate), a Cold War project intended to close the “psi gap” (the psychic equivalent of the missile gap) between the United States and Soviet Union. The Soviets were training psychic spies, so we would as well. Forget the film. Read the book. In The Men Who Stare at Goats Jon Ronson tells the story of this program, how it started, the bizarre twists and turns it took, and how its legacy carries on today.

In a highly readable narrative style, Ronson takes readers on a Looking Glass-like tour of what U.S. Psychological Operations (PsyOps) forces were researching: invisibility, levitation, telekinesis, walking through walls, and even killing goats just by staring at them (the ultimate goal was killing enemy soldiers telepathically). In one project, psychic spies attempted to use “remote viewing” to identify the location of missile silos, submarines, POWs, and MIAs from a small room in a run-down Maryland building. If these skills could be honed and combined, perhaps military officials could zap remotely viewed enemy missiles in their silos, or so the thinking went.

Initially, the Star Gate story received broad media attention — including a spot on ABC’s Nightline — and made a few of the psychic spies, such as Ed Dames and Joe McMoneagle, minor celebrities. As regular guests on Art Bell’s pro-paranormal radio talk show, the former spies spun tales that, had they not been documented elsewhere, would have seemed like the ramblings of paranoid cultists.

But Ronson has brought new depth to the account by carefully tracking down leads, revealing connections, and uncovering previously undisclosed stories. For example, Ronson convincingly connects some of the bizarre torture techniques used on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, with similar techniques employed during the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. FBI agents blasted the Branch Davidians all night with such obnoxious sounds as screaming rabbits, crying seagulls, dentist drills, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” The U.S. military employed the same technique on Iraqi prisoners of war, instead using the theme song from the PBS kids series Barney and Friends — a tune many parents concur does become torturous with repetition.

One of Ronson’s sources, none other than Uri Geller (of bent-spoon fame), led him to one Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who directed the psychic spy network from his office in Arlington, Virginia. Stubblebine thought that with enough practice he could learn to walk through walls, a belief encouraged by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet whose post-war experiences at such new age meccas as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, led him to found the “first earth battalion” of “warrior monks” and “jedi knights.” These warriors, according to Channon, would transform the nature of war by entering hostile lands with “sparkly eyes,” marching to the mantra of “om,” and presenting the enemy with “automatic hugs.” Disillusioned by the ugly carnage of modern war, Channon envisioned a battalion armory of machines that would produce “discordant sounds” (Nancy and Barney?) and “psycho-electric” guns that would shoot “positive energy” at enemy soldiers.

Although Ronson expresses skepticism throughout his narrative, he avoids the ontological question of whether any of these claims have any basis in reality. That is, can anyone levitate, turn invisible, walk through walls, or remote view a hidden object? Inquiring minds (scientists) want to know. The answer is an unequivocal no. Under controlled conditions remote viewers have never succeeded in finding a hidden target with greater accuracy than random guessing. The occasional successes you hear about are due either to chance or suspect experiment conditions, like when the person who subjectively assesses whether the remote viewer’s narrative description seems to match the target already knows the target location and its characteristics. When both the experimenter and the remote viewer are blinded to the target, all psychic powers vanish.

Herein lies an important lesson that I have learned in many years of paranormal investigations and that Ronson gleaned in researching his illuminating book: What people remember rarely corresponds to what actually happened. Case in point to return to the title theme: A man named Guy Savelli told Ronson that he had seen soldiers kill goats by staring at them, and that he himself had also done so. But as the story unfolds we discover that Savelli is recalling, years later, what he remembers about a particular “experiment” with 30 numbered goats. Savelli randomly chose goat number 16 and gave it his best death stare. But he couldn’t concentrate that day, so he quit the experiment, only to be told later that goat number 17 had died. End of story. No autopsy or explanation of the cause of death. No information about how much time had elapsed; the conditions, like temperature, of the room into which the 30 goats had been placed; how long they had been there, and so forth. Since Ronson was skeptical, Savelli triumphantly produced a videotape of another experiment where someone else supposedly stopped the heart of a goat. But the tape showed only a goat whose heart rate dropped from 65 to 55 beats per minute.

That was the extent of the empirical evidence of goat killing, and as someone who has spent decades in the same fruitless pursuit of phantom goats, I conclude that the evidence for the paranormal in general doesn’t get much better than this.

They shoot horses, don’t they?

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A Skeptical Triumph Over Medical Flim-Flam

November 2009

Skeptic Bruce Flamm, M.D. is vindicated in his drawn-out court case

On Friday, October 24, 2009, a California Court of Appeals vindicated Dr. Bruce Flamm, an OBGYN physician and professor at the University of California, Riverside, and member of the Skeptics Society, by throwing out a defamation lawsuit filed against him by a man who claimed to have proven that prayer can increase pregnancy rates in women trying to conceive.

Back in 2001, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers claiming that prayer for women undergoing in-vitro fertilization resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50 percent, double that of women who did not receive prayer (i.e., a 100% increase in pregnancy rates!). Media coverage was extensive. ABC News medical correspondent Dr. Timothy Johnson, for example, reported, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results; but many physicians remain skeptical.” One of those skeptics was a University of California Clinical Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics named Bruce Flamm, who not only found numerous methodological errors in the experiment, but also discovered that one of the study’s authors, Daniel Wirth (AKA “John Wayne Truelove”), is not an M.D., but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, for which he pled guilty. The other two authors have refused comment, and after three years of inquires from Flamm the journal removed the study from its website and Columbia University launched an investigation.

What they discovered, thanks to the vigilance of Dr. Flamm, was that Cha’s other co-author, Columbia University’s Rogerio Lobo, later revealed that he had not participated in the research and withdrew his name from the published findings. Even with one of his co-authors in federal prison and the other disgraced, Korean fertility specialist Kwang Yul Cha stood by the results of was is essentially a supernatural claim in that the presumption is that the deity intervened on behalf of infertile women to help them conceive. One wonders why the prayers do not seem to work in the other direction; that is, all those women who, due to alcohol or other external influences, engaged in sexual activity with no intention of conceiving and thus, over the course of the next several days, prayed like mad for pregnancy prevention, to no avail. But I digress…

Angered by Dr. Flamm’s skeptical persistence, Cha eventually filed a defamation lawsuit against Flamm, especially after he published several articles questioning the validity of the original pregnancy study. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in August 2007, was thrown out of court in April, 2008. However, in June, 2008 Cha took the case to the California Appellate Court. Finally, on October 24, 2009, the Court of Appeals, “affirmed in full” the Superior Court decision and thus ruled that Superior Court Judge James Dunn had acted appropriately in tossing out the lawsuit.

In response to the ruling, Dr. Flamm issued the following statement:

Today’s ruling is a victory for science and evidence-based medicine. Scientists must be allowed to question bizarre claims. Cha’s mysterious study was designed and allegedly conducted by a man who turned out to be a criminal with a 20-year history of fraud. A criminal who steals the identities of dead children to obtain bank loans and passports is not a trustworthy source of research data. Cha could have simply admitted this obvious fact but instead he hired a team of lawyers to punish me for voicing my opinions. Physicians should debate their opinions in medical journals, not in courts of law. Judges have better things to do with their time and taxpayers have better things to do with their money.

Amen, brother! And congratulations Dr. Flamm, on a cause well chosen and a battle well fought. Your stamina, persistence, and skeptical vigilance are to be commended. We honor you.

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Will E.T. Look Like Us?

November 2009
Evolution helps us imagine what aliens might be like
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What are the odds that intelligent, technically advanced aliens would look anything like the ones in films, with an emaciated torso and limbs, spindly fingers and a bulbous, bald head with large, almond-shaped eyes? What are the odds that they would even be humanoid? In this YouTube video, produced by Josh Timonen of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, I argue that the chances are close to zero. Richard Dawkins himself made this interesting observation in a private communication after viewing it:

I would agree with [Shermer] in betting against aliens being bipedal primates, and I think the point is worth making, but I think he greatly overestimates the odds against. [University of Cambridge paleontologist] Simon Conway Morris, whose authority is not to be dismissed, thinks it positively likely that aliens would be, in effect, bipedal primates. [Harvard University biologist] Ed Wilson gave at least some time to the speculation that, if it had not been for the end-Cretaceous catastrophe, dinosaurs might have produced something like the attached [referring to paleontologist Dale A. Russell’s illustrated evolutionary projection of how a bipedal dinosaur might have evolved into a reptilian humanoid].

(continue reading…)

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Farewell to Norman Jay Levitt (1943-2009)

October 2009

It is with much sadness that we report the death of Norman Jay Levitt on Saturday, October 24, 2009, due to heart failure. His wife of 38 years, Renee Greene Levitt, reported the news to friends and colleagues of Norman, and announced that a memorial service will be held on Sunday, November 1 at 1:30 PM at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, 630 Amsterdam Avenue at 91 St. She also asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be sent to the National Center for Science Education, 420 40th Street, Suite 2, Oakland, CA 94609. Our deepest condolences to Renee and to Norman’s family and extended family.

Norman Levitt received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1967 and taught mathematics, specializing in topology, for forty years at Rutgers before retirement. He was a frequent contributor on public attitudes toward science, as well as the follies of academic life that arise in connection with misunderstanding of science, regularly contributing review essays for Skeptic, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications. His books include Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science (with Paul R. Gross) in 1994, The Flight from Science and Reason in 1997, and Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture in 1999. In 1989 he published a technical work entitled Grassmannians and the Gauss Maps in Piecewise-Linear Topology.

Norman was best known, however, for his relentless defense of science, particularly against those in the academy — generally labeled as social constructivists, deconstructionists, or postmodernists — who tended to lump science in with other cultural traditions as “just another way of knowing” that is no better than any other tradition, and thereby reduce the scientific enterprise to little more than culturally-determined guess work at best and hegemonic power mongering at worst. In the pages of Skeptic, for example, he reviewed a number of books by such academics, most recently tearing into the British sociologist of science Steve Fuller for his expert testimony at the Dover trial in which Fuller defended Intelligent Design creationism as a legitimate science that deserves equal treatment with evolutionary theory. Already schedule for publication in the next issue of Skeptic was Dr. Levitt’s review essay entitled “Science: A Four Hundred Page Hissy-Fit,” a review of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara, which we have pre-published in eSkeptic in tribute to one of the finest writers to ever grace the pages of Skeptic. Editing Norman Levitt was unlike editing any other author in the 17-year history of the magazine. His vocabulary was unparalleled and his command of literature, history, and culture was second to none in the sciences. I give you just one typical example, from the aforementioned essay. As you can see, Norm did not suffer foolish authors gladly:

Mutatis mutandis, the British historian of science Patricia Fara has written a book that treats its own vast subject — science and the history of its development — in a similarly contemptuous and condescending way. Fara’s case reposes on the twin shaky pillars of epistemological relativism and self-ascribed political righteousness. It is outlandishly Pecksniffian in tone and substance. She has an appallingly cavalier attitude toward evidence and documentation. She argues by means of flat assertion and unsupported generalization, sins, one assumes, she would never let her callowest undergraduates get away with. When I read a book, however closely, my marginal notations are usually brief and infrequent. Not so in the case of Science: A Four Thousand Year History; my copy is crammed with notes to myself, most of them pointing out the author’s grotesque gaffes. Imprecision reigns on every page; inaccuracies, irrelevancies, omissions, anachronisms, errors, and outright howlers go galumphing through the text with the author’s blithe acquiescence.

Norm, we shall miss you terribly. Your literal voice may be gone, but your literary voice will live on forever.

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An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations

October 2009

(Note: this post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on October 16, 2009)

Dear Bill,

Years ago you invited me to appear as a fellow skeptic several times on your ABC show Politically Incorrect, and I have ever since shared your skepticism on so many matters important to both of us: creationism and intelligent design, religious supernaturalism and New Age paranormal piffle, 9/11 “truthers”, Obama “birthers”, and all manner of conspiratorial codswallop. On these matters, and many others, you rightly deserved the Richard Dawkins Award from Richard’s foundation, which promotes reason and science.

However, I believe that when it comes to alternative medicine in general and vaccinations in particular you have fallen prey to the same cognitive biases and conspiratorial thinking that you have so astutely identified in others. In fact, the very principle of how vaccinations work is additional proof (as if we needed more) against the creationists that evolution happened and that natural selection is real: vaccinations work by tricking the body’s immune system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the vaccination was given. Our immune system “adapts” to the invading pathogens and “evolves” to fight them, such that when it encounters a biologically similar pathogen (which itself may have evolved) it has in its armory the weapons needed to fight it. This is why many of us born in the 1950s and before may already have some immunity against the H1N1 flu because of its genetic similarity to earlier influenza viruses, and why many of those born after really should get vaccinated.

Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See ScienceBasedMedicine.org for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)

Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection — Alfred Russel Wallace — was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.

As well, Bill, your comments about not wanting to “trust the government” to inject us with a potentially deadly virus, along with many comments you have made about “big pharma” being in cahoots with the AMA and the CDC to keep us sick in the name of corporate profits is, in every way that matters, indistinguishable from 9/11 conspiracy mongering. Your brilliant line about how we know that the Bush administration did not orchestrate 9/11 (“because it worked”), applies here: the idea that dozens or hundreds pharmaceutical executives, AMA directors, CDC doctors, and corporate CEOs could pull off a conspiracy to keep us all sick in the name of money and power makes about as much sense as believing that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their bureaucratic apparatchiks planted explosive devices in the World Trade Center and flew remote controlled planes into the buildings.

Finally, Bill, please consider the odd juxtaposition of your enthusiastic support for health care reform and government intervention into this aspect of our medical lives, with your skepticism that these same people — when it comes to vaccinations and disease prevention — suddenly lose their sense of morality along with their medical training. You excoriate the political right for not trusting the government with our health, and then in the next breath you inadvertently join their chorus when you denounce vaccinations, thereby adding fodder for their ideological cannons. Please remember that it’s the same people administrating both health care and vaccination programs.

One of the most remarkable features of science is that it often leads its practitioners to change their minds and to say “I was wrong.” Perhaps we don’t do it enough, as our own blinders and egos can get in the way, but it does happen, and it certainly happens a lot more in science than it does in religion or politics. I’ve done it. I used to be a global warming skeptic, but I reconsidered the evidence and announced in Scientific American that I was wrong. Please reconsider both the evidence for vaccinations, as well as the inconsistencies in your position, and think about doing one of the bravest and most honorable things any critical thinker can do, and that is to publicly state, “I changed my mind. I was wrong.”

With respect,
Michael Shermer

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