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Michael Shermer in An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar is a feature documentary about the world-famous magician, escape artist, and world-renowned enemy of deception, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi. The film brings to life Randi’s intricate investigations that publicly exposed psychics, faith healers, and con-artists with quasi-religious fervor. A master deceiver who came out of the closet at the age of 81, Randi created fictional characters, fake psychics, and even turned his partner of 25 years, the artist Jose Alvarez, into a sham guru named Carlos. But when a shocking revelation in Randi’s personal life is discovered, it isn’t clear whether Randi is still the deceiver – or the deceived.

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The Dangers of Keeping an Open Mind

Why great scientists make great mistakes
magazine cover

“Alien abductors have asked him to probe them.” “Sasquatch has taken a photograph of him.” The “him” is the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” the faux character in the Dos Equis beer ad campaign, and these are my favorite skeptical lines from a litany of superfluities and braggadocios. (“In a past life, he was himself.”)

My candidate for the most interesting scientist in history I’d like to have a beer with is Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century naturalist and co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of natural selection, whose death centennial we will marking this November. As I document in my 2002 biography of him— In Darwin’s Shadow (Oxford University Press)—Wallace was a grand synthesizer of biological data into a few core principles that revolutionized biogeography, zoology and evolutionary theory. He spent four years exploring the Amazon rain forest but lost most of his collections when his ship sank on his way home. His discovery of natural selection came during an eight-year expedition to the Malay Archipelago, where during a malaria-induced fever, it struck him that the best fit organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce.

Being open-minded enough to make great discoveries, however, can often lead scientists to make great blunders. Wallace, for example, was also a firm believer in phrenology, spiritualism and psychic phenomena, evidence for which he collected at séances over the objections of his more skeptical colleagues. Among them was Thomas Henry Huxley, who growled, “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.” (continue reading…)

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Coincidences and Certainties

On the morning of Friday, November 16, 2012, I wandered out of my hotel in Portland, Oregon—The Crystal Hotel, an exotic boutique hotel with rooms decorated in the theme of a musician, poet, or artist (I stayed in the Allen Ginsberg room staring at a portrait of the beat poet and realized why I write nonfiction). In search of breakfast, I could have turned left or right as I exited the lobby. I turned right. At the first intersection I could have continued straight, gone left, or gone right. I went left. There were breakfast restaurants on both the left and the right side of the street. I chose one on the right. The hostess asked if I wanted to be seated near the window or next to the wall. I chose the window. About half way through my breakfast I happened to look up to see a man walking by who looked familiar. He looked at me with similar familiarity. I waived him into the restaurant. He spoke my name in recognition. I stuttered and stammered and hemmed and hawed and finally admitted, “I’m sorry, but I can’t remember your name.” He said, “Uh, Michael, it’s me, Scott Wolfman, your agent!”

After I recovered from my embarrassment and momentary fear that I’d never get another speaking engagement, we had a laugh about it all, but then got to thinking—what are the odds of something like this happening? I’m from Southern California and Scott is from Connecticut. And we happened to run into each other in Portland, Oregon, a city neither of us normally has any business being in. I was randomly walking about the town, as was Scott. We were stunned. It sure seemed like something more than a coincidence, and we both joked about how there must be some sort of scheduling god who makes these things happen.

But Scott and I are good skeptics. We know how to think about such events. Even though such coincidences as this really stand out as unusual—and they are when I describe it in this manner—most people forget to consider all the other possibilities: the thousands of people I know who didn’t happen by that diner, the delay at the diner talking to Scott when I might have left earlier and had something else unusual happen that now didn’t, all the other cities I’ve traveled to and dined in when I didn’t see anyone I knew, and so on. And the same for Scott: he has hundreds of clients and knows thousands of people in the lecture business, any one of which he would ever happen to bump into in any given city he happened to travel to, would stand out as unusual.

In other words, after the fact we construct all the contingencies that had to come together in just such a way for one particular event to happen, and then we only notice and remember (and later tell stories like the above) about the events that we noticed as extraordinary, and conveniently forget to notice all the other possibilities. Here’s an article opening you’ll never read:

“A remarkable thing happened to me this morning. When I went out for breakfast I didn’t see a single person I know.”

And yet I’ve had thousands of breakfasts just like this one in which I see nothing but strangers. And, of course, I don’t bother to take note of that uninteresting fact, and I do not give it a second thought. The main cognitive bias at work here is the hindsight bias.

The hindsight bias is the tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge. Once an event has occurred, we look back and reconstruct how it happened, why it had to happen that way and not some other way, and why we should have seen it coming all along. Such “Monday-morning quarterbacking” is literally evident on the Monday mornings following a weekend filled with football games. We all know what plays should have been called…after the outcome. Ditto the stock market and the endless parade of financial experts whose prognostications are quickly forgotten as they shift to post-diction analysis after the market closes—it’s easy to “buy low, sell high” once you have perfect information, which is only available after the fact when it is too late. In this story, the hindsight bias was my noticing after the fact all the particularities that had to come together in just such a way for Scott and I to run into each other.

What would have been truly and extraordinarily beyond coincidence is if I had computed ahead of time the odds of running into my lecture agent at that very time and place, and then it happened. But that’s not what happened. My account here is a post-diction—an after-the-fact analysis—instead of a prediction. Unfortunately, most people who are not aware of such cognitive biases fail to consider all the other possibilities, and how the sum of all these possibilities is certainty—something must happen, and 99.99% of the things that happen are uninteresting and unimportant and so we don’t notice or recall them later. This cognitive shortcoming is, in part, the basis of a type of superstition and magical thinking that finds deep meaning in coincidence, while ignoring entirely the certainties that must happen according to the laws of nature and contingencies of history.

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Mystery UFO Photo

I thought I would share with you an email and photographs submitted to me by a gentleman named Marc Richard. Instead of telling you what I think it is, I’d like to hear from you what you think is the best explanation. Submit your best guess in the comments section below.

Hello, I’m not sure where to send these, or if your even looking for this kind of thing, couldn’t find a submissions page on the site. I have eight photos, I’ll send you two, if your interested I’d be happy to send the rest. Here’s what I wrote about the photos at the time I took them:

“On Oct, 19, 2009 at around 6:30pm, I was working on the 18th floor of my apartment building in downtown Detroit, when I noticed something floating around the two smoke stacks on the power plant near my place. It seemed to be hovering directly through the smoke of the stacks, and then around the two stacks, in between the two stacks, and then it would float a few blocks away and then back to the stacks. At this point I had been watching this thing for about 8 minutes or so when I ran to grab my camera and returned with my girlfriend and my brother in law. So I snapped off these pics which I can’t explain. It seems to be pretty small (about the size of one of those little smart cars?) I sent these photos to UFOs Northwest shortly after taking them. They’re still up on that site, nobody seems to have an explanation for them. If you have any questions I’d be happy to try and answer them.”

I know your busy and don’t want to waste your time, it’s just that I’ve lived down here a long time and I’ve watched plastic bags/ balloons float around in the updrafts of buildings a hundred times. Look at the side profile of this thing, I don’t think it’s a sphere as much as a strange diamond cut geometry. This thing would hold its altitude precisely and float off three or four full city blocks away and then return to the stacks, and never even waver slightly in its flight. And then through the actual smoke leaving the stack without changing altitude. I really do appreciate your opinion on this matter so thanks once more for taking the time.

Sincerely, Marc Richard

Click the photos to enlarge them and then leave your comment below.

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According to Google Earth, the window from which the photographs were taken is 2,281.67 feet away from the stacks.
A sketch of Marc Richard's estimation of the flight path of the unidentified flying object.

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The Muddle of Truth

What Really Happened on Fox’s TV show Moment of Truth:
Travis Walton responds to Michael Shermer

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article by Travis Walton explains his side of what happened on this dreadful Fox television show on which I also appeared and described in last week’s Skepticblog. To understand Walton’s explanation you should read that article first, but if you don’t have time the upshot of the story is that Travis Walton claims that on November 5, 1975 he was abducted into a UFO in an Arizona national forest during a logging job and that his co-workers witnessed the event. According to the late UFO investigator Philip Klass, Walton passed one polygraph test (published) but failed another (unpublished), and in his opinion Walton and his associates made up the story as an excuse for failing to complete the logging job on time. Walton’s side of the story is recounted in detail in his 1978 book The Walton Experience, later reissued as Fire in the Sky, the title of the 1993 film based on the book. —Michael Shermer

With the recent airing overseas of the canceled Fox television show, Moment of Truth some people may have been mislead into believing that some shocking new revelation about the famous logging crew UFO case has come to light. Quite the contrary. Now that the airing of the show ends the “gag clause” in my contract (with its $1 million penalty) I am free to reveal that Moment of Truth has used testing methods that the producers were informed from the beginning were long ago completely discredited by every polygraph expert, lie detector school, and polygraph professional association in existence. I’ll quote here specific condemnations of the show’s methods by four of the world’s most highly respected polygraph experts who agree: “the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” I will reveal other blatant deceptions the show has committed. And I will provide details of how, after the show, I underwent two of the most rigorous new polygraph tests available anywhere in the world.

I should have seen it coming. I should have known better. But there were unique circumstances. The company where I had worked for almost a decade announced a corporate headquarters decision to downsize by permanently terminating the 50 most recently hired workers, regardless of their performance. My hire date put me on that list. I came home that day to receive a phone call inviting me to be a “contestant” on a show I’d never seen that offered the possibility of winning up to $100,000. An opportunity to solve my layoff problem? I was wary. I began taping our negotiations. I watched an episode. I knew the examiner was their man, with every incentive to keep his employers from having to pay out big prize money. I wrote emails to a few of my friends about my apprehensions. I wrestled with doubt. I learned the show specialized in setting “contestants” up for dramatically devastating revelations (a la Jerry Springer). Still, it appeared I was on the brink of financial problems and all I had to do was answer 25 questions truthfully. What could be easier than that?

Impossible, I later learned. In all the show’s years almost no contestants had ever won the top prize. But I didn’t know that yet, so I asked, does the examiner use modern accepted methodology? I was assured he did. This was a lie—as far from true as you can get. The producer telling me this untruth may have believed it simply because the higher ups said so. Or they all—producers and network—may have been deceived by the examiner, who, with his training absolutely had to know his methods were bogus. We went back and forth. I sent them my refusal. They came back and were very persuasive and said they were planning on responding to criticisms by making sure more prizes would be awarded. I so very foolishly yielded to the temptation. Even after arriving for taping I learned such disappointing details and got such bad vibes that I announced I was going home. But my objections were negotiated away. I found out a major portion of episodes already taped never aired because the “contestants” withdrew and walked out.

By then I felt trapped into something I suspected was rigged from the ground up. My confidence in the examiner (essential for proper testing) was destroyed when he lied to me. He said he knew Arizona Department of Public Safety polygraph examiner Cy Gilson, who previously tested the woods crew, and was using the same method and equipment he did. His ancient polygraph machine was obviously not the state of the art computer-assisted equipment Cy Gilson uses. The final nail was learning that he only goes through the questions once! What?! Item #5 of the American Polygraph Association’s Standards and Principles of Practice that I quoted in my 1996 book Fire in the Sky (which I had loaned the producer) specifically prohibits rendering an examiner’s conclusion on the basis of a single run of the list. Modern method requires three separate runs through the same identical list of questions, sometimes four. Without these comparison charts there is no way to discern deception from random fluctuations in the subject’s responses. For example, even though crewman Allen Dalis “basically told the truth” according to the sheriff’s files in his first test with Cy Gilson, he was given an “inconclusive” just because he only did the list twice, storming out before the third run. (Allen passed a second test with Gilson in 1993 with flying colors). And modern methods limit relevant questions to three or four per test. The show’s rogue examiner was doing over 50 questions! Even more damning, the examiner had the option to pick the 25 questions to be used in the show, further removing objective comparison.

Fire in the Sky (book cover)

Earlier, a fake segment pretending to be my test was filmed with an actor in place of the examiner while my arm with the sensors attached rested comfortably on a table as per proper procedure. Later their actual “test” required me to hold my arm perfectly still while balancing it on a narrow one inch wide steel chair arm for the entire 50+ questions, a very long time, and excruciating. This was guaranteed to cause random stress reactions in their “contestants,” totally unrelated to deception. And, of course, with no comparison charts, there could be no way to see if this “reaction” was repeated all three times at the same question. Also, the test was done, as per examiner’s instructions, with my shoes removed, with my eyes closed, with a panel of at least six strangers staring at me. This sort of distraction was never part of any test I had ever heard of. Every test I know of consisted of the examiner and the subject alone in a room without interruptions.

When the “false” verdict (to the question “Were you abducted into a UFO on November 5, 1975?”) was announced the audience started booing. The host, Mark L. Walberg, turned to them and asked, “How many still believe he is telling the truth?” The audience erupted in cheering, long and loud. He asked how many now disbelieved and got only a few scattered calls from the back. They cut this out. Not long after the show I wrote one of the show staff and said, “They could edit that out or cut the volume…but that would be deceptive, wouldn’t it?” My prediction was right. They also rearranged the reaction shots of my family, even re-using some, moving them from after the verdict to before, creating another false perception.

By the way, not only was I judged truthful on other questions consistent with the reality of my incident, but fellow crewman Ken Petersen was also on the show and was paid a prize for passing his test question about witnessing the incident. So of course that too was deceptively edited out.

The United States GAO (Government Accounting Office) discovered that the method upon which Moment of Truth based their method (and further degraded) yielded up to 80% false positives (truth tellers judged to be liars). This method is illegal in some states to the point of revoking the license of anyone using it. The Moment of Truth examiner, in fact, regularly committed most of the 13 Activities of Unethical Examiners listed on the American Association of Police Polygraph Examiners website.

Cleve Backster is one of the pioneers in polygraph research and development, and is recognized as one of the top experts in the field. Techniques currently widely used in polygraph bear his name. He has administered hundreds of polygraph training courses and advanced seminars to law enforcement personnel at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Backster has been an interrogation instructor for the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps, an interrogation specialist with the CIA and has been a guest instructor at Fort Gordon, the U.S. Department of Defense Polygraph School, the Canadian Police College Polygraph Examiner School, and the FBI Academy. He has held numerous high ranking posts in polygraph professional associations, and has testified as an expert witness before the U.S. Congress in 1964 and 1974. Backster Associates said, “Moment of Truth uses a technique in polygraph that was discarded years ago.”

Arizona State Police polygraph examiner Cy Gilson, who tested the entire woods crew, said, “there can be no validity to the test results in such a procedure. The pseudo examiner is a whore and the show’s producer is the pimp.”

Dr. David Raskin has authored hundreds of scientific papers on polygraph. As a court recognized expert he has testified in cases such as the Howard Hughes will, Jeffrey (Fatal Vision) McDonald, serial killer Ted Bundy, the DeLorean affair, and the McMartin preschool case. Raskin has testified before British Parliament, the Israeli Kineset, and four times before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate with regard to Watergate and Iran/Contra. Dr. David Raskin said, “I have always thought those programs are a disgrace. They trick people into participating and then use unprofessional and inaccurate methods merely for the purpose of entertaining their audiences. Any polygraph examiner who participates in such charades should not be allowed to practice. I have been asked to be the principal in such shows and have always refused. It is unfortunate that they lured you into being abused by them. I agree with the criticisms by Mr. Martin.”

R. Michael Martin, President of Global Polygraph Network and court certified polygraph expert, created a website, The Truth About the Moment of Truth when the show first aired (and of course long before my show) in the U.S. He writes: “FOX TV has intentionally blocked us from publishing this information on their public internet forum….” His site gives reasons: “the polygraph aspect of the show has no validity whatsoever.” “This test format will not determine truth or deception.” And in conclusion, “Due to the vague, subjective, futuristic nature, and sheer volume, of relevant questions asked on The Moment of Truth, there can be little more than chance accuracy in determining truth or deception to these questions. In other words, they could simply flip a coin and achieve the same accuracy levels.”

I came home after Moment of Truth and sought out the most rigorous new testing I could find. Polygraph evidence is admissible in court in New Mexico and so is tightly regulated by state law. I chose the firm with the highest recommendations, one that does work for the New Mexico State Prison, the Albuquerque Police Dept., even the United States Marshal’s Service. They applied the most refined and validated modern methods using state-of-the-art computer assisted, five trace equipment with digital readout. I passed two separate tests flawlessly with “a finding of: TRUTHFUL TO THE ABOVE RELEVANT QUESTIONS.” (Additional details in my updated edition of Fire in the Sky.)

To a rational person there could be no doubt that my passing five tests from three separate examiners, each of whom have strong service in law enforcement, completely eclipses the phony pretend “test” by the rogue examiner scamming the public on Moment of Truth. I challenge skeptics to find a single legitimate polygraph examiner who will publicly stand by the methods used there. Nevertheless, bafflingly, there will be people who do some dumb thing like try to pretend that contending verdicts make it all too confusing, so we should just throw it all out and consider the case unsupported by anything. A sneaky kind of intellectual dishonesty that really means they are going against the recognized experts and essentially accepting the claim by the discredited polygraph operator. To a skeptic a failed verdict, even from the worst operators, is eagerly embraced, while passed verdicts, regardless of superior credentials, just has to be doubted.

Sigh, it never ends.

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