Think You Can See the Dead? Skeptics Can’t Wait to Test Your Brain and Find Out

March 12, 2008

One of my favorite articles of blogging past was the piece I did on “Spiritualism Camps” in which I mused over just how it was that a camp counselor medium like Judy Ulch could litterally see “stubble on their faces” of ghosts.  Just today I received the first and only comment on the piece… and was given a terrible review.  “Jean” even said that I looked stupid: trying to apply scientific hypothesizing to spirits, pshaw!  I’m crushed.

Of course, Jean was apparently so outraged by the mere idea of examining spiritual phenomenon that she didn’t bother to read far enough to see all her complaints addressed.  And her post did spark an bright idea of bloggy  back-issue synergism.

You see, just last week I came across a story about some scientists at Berkeley who are working on an MRI technique that could potentially allow scientists to reconstruct the images that a brain is seeing. Now, for mediums like Judy Ulch to be registering anything ghostly as a visual image at all, let alone something detailed enough to have distinct facial features, it almost certainly has to show up in her brain.  And if we can reconstruct that image… well you probably see where I’m going with this.  If we can see what they see, then we can see if they really see what they say they see.  See?

Of course, most mediums will probably balk at the very idea of testing their powers of paranormal perception in such a definitive fashion, and are as unlikely to let scientists strap them into an MRI machine set up in the middle of an Indian burial ground as they were to take James Randi’s million dollar challenge.

Which is a sad thing really.  If spirits really did exist, and mediums really could perceive them, then even a failure in this case could teach us all something.  That is, if a ghostly visage fails to appear on the processed MRI scan at the moment the medium claims to see one, then at the very least we’ve been able to rule out yet another false model of how spirit images work.  We could rule out all sorts of things in fact:

  • The possibility that mediums have special rods and cones in their eyes that allow them to detect spiritual radiation.
  • That any kind of optical image (light waves hit the ghost, bounce off, are captured by human eyes, etc.) is involved at all.
  • That mediums are really “seeing” the ghosts in any meaningful sense, as opposed to the ghostly gaze being somehow superimposed onto the mental results of regular vision.

And of course, there’s always the possibility that spirits would show up on the MRI technique, in which case mediums would be vindicated and heralded as ingenious and overlooked pioneers in a entirely new realm of scientific exploration.

I’m game.  I bet most skeptics would be.  All we have to lose is the money for the use of the machine.  What we have to gain, however, is knowledge, one way or the other.  Sounds good to me.

So how about it, mediums?  Ready to do your part for human knowledge?

Book Meme Corner: Women With Over-developed Nervous Systems and How to Irradiate Your Face

March 6, 2008

Ah, blogging memes. I’m not a huge fan in general, but Secundum Artem has tagged me with one, and I’ll dutifully follow along. The memeceedure here is:

1. Go to page 123 of the nearest book.
2. Find the 5th sentence.
3. Write down the next 3 sentences.

The actual nearest book to me was Medicine in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, 1810-1976, but unfortunately page 123 lacks enough full sentences and is merely an extremely dry recitation of institutions in any case. Lest you think the book is a total waste though, it does include a long and amusingly sage and serious discussion of homeopathy, as well as recounting the 1881 gynecological lectures of one Dr. Henry Justus Herrick, in which he apparently attributed women’s uterine problems to, among other things, the “overwork of the brain and excessive development of the nervous system.” You’ve come a long way, medicine!

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Busy. M’kay?

February 5, 2008

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately.  It turns out that everything has been perfect and reasonable and nothing has been deserving of criticism the last few days, which really, comes as quite a relief to all of us.

Unfortunately, with everything from the Florida creationism fight to the release of Expelled! to NewsTarget’s (now “Natural News”) continued existence, this spell of sense and sanity surely cannot last.

Jonah Goldberg: Is Writing this Drivel Really What You Aspire To?

January 13, 2008

It’s hard to write, especially everyday, without it turning into just the mindless typing of trivial thoughts and prejudices. I have a pretty good excuse, of course: I don’t get paid for it.

So what’s Jonah Goldberg’s excuse for his latest Townhall column?

If Sadly No were doing one of their “shorter” summaries of it, it would go like this: “Guess what, fellow conservatives? It turns out that the opposing party’s candidates are lame, the people who vote for them are lame, and Mike Huckabee, the one guy I really don’t want to win our primary, is sort of lame too.”

Does that sound like something worth reading? Was it really something that Goldberg thought worth bothering to write?

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Blog Funeral: Final Statement from an Obsidian Wings Blogger Killed in Iraq

January 4, 2008

Obsidian Wings blogger G’Kar (a huge Babylon 5 fan, if that wasn’t already obvious) has died in Iraq, killed by small arms fire, apparently just yesterday. He (real name Andy Olmsted) left behind a final post in the event of his death that, it should probably go without saying, is worth a read. If you have any doubts that computers and blogging make people less social, less human, less empathetic… lay them to rest here.

It’s a minor part of the whole, but it’s worth mentioning that it also looks like Olmsted was yet another non-believer to die in a foxhole, fighting for our country without any bribe of eternal reward other than wanting to do the right thing. We need more people like that in the world, be they religious or no, and unfortunately now we have one less of them instead.

Sal Cordova, The Evolutionary Expert Who Thinks Fish Turn Into Cows

December 28, 2007

I can tell that newfound Intelligent Design blogger Sal Cordova is going to provide a rich vein of bad ideas. I’m set! Like many Intelligent Design blogs, Sal and pals over at Young Cosmos apparently cannot handle allowing critics open access to comment and respond to his claims, which just means more entertainment for you, the Bad Idea Blog reader, rather than me dividing my efforts elsewhere.

In this latest edition, let’s take a gander at what Sal’s picture of what evolution is:
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Sal Cordova, Young Earth Creationist, Used Car Salesman

December 27, 2007

Back when I first started blogging, one of the first things I highlighted were the madcap quote-mining antics of Intelligent Design sycophant Sal Cordova. Sal has been a longtime net presence on numerous forms devoted to evolution and intelligent design, but it seems that now he has his own blog: “Young Cosmos.

I have to admit: I honestly somehow missed the fact that Sal was a straight up young earth creationist (he says old that dabbles in “young,” but whatever). Whether it was a sort of open secret until now, or I just haven’t expended enough time obsessing about Sal Cordova I don’t know. It certainly does make him a rather poor spokesperson for the claim that Intelligent Design is not, as he has long insisted, a direct outgrowth of the political and scientific failures of classic creationism.

In any case, in his latest post, Sal tries to take on the classic problem of evil: why would a good God create a world that not only has evil, but seems in many respects designed to be specially conducive for evil and suffering?

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Carl Sagan Blog-a-thon Today: Celebrating a Scientist and Inspiration

December 20, 2007

Surf through the scienceblog world, and you might find a number of reflections on a man who is a hero to many: Carl Sagan. Today is the 10th anniversary of his passing, and among other things, a blog-a-thon is being held in his memory.

I touched on Sagan a little bit in my post “Scientists May Have Already Saved the World, Just by Observing It!“… and if you somehow managed to get through life this far without hearing his short “Pale Blue Dot” speech, you owe it to yourself to check that video out (it’s the last video on that page, and you can find many versions of it on youtube.

I’m too young to really remember Sagan as a cultural force, and in some sense it seems like the decade I’ve been most active and aware of science and culture in is a lot poorer after his passing. My take on the man, looking back rather than remembering, is sadness that there has not really been anyone in the popular culture to take his place. There are tons of fantastic science journalists and bloggers and writers and even popularizers like Bill Nye out there today, many of whom owe their careers to the wonder that Sagan sparked in them. But there’s been so far no one to replace him as a singular public figure and advocate.

Some things can’t be replaced.

Support Skepchick Radio! Listen to NPR Pilot Show from Rebecca Watson

December 17, 2007

The delightfully droll Rebecca Watson of and the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast is going for the big time: the pilot for her new NPR show has now gone live on the Public Radio Talent Quest page.  I can’t say that I’m blown away by the working name “Curiosity Aroused”  (seems decidedly too twee), but the show itself is golden, especially given that it’s a first time outing.  Give it a listen.  Hilarious, fast-paced, and skeptastic radio.

Chimpanzees Beat Humans on Visual Memory Tests

December 4, 2007

Human beings pride themselves on their superiority in the animal kingdom, mostly by counting as important only those things that we truly do excel at. But it turns out that our unimpressive color vision apparently isn’t the only place where our much vaunted brain can’t always measure up, even against some of our closest relatives. If humans were simply in another whole mental class away from other animals, you might expect that we’d by far exceed even chimps in everything: that our otherworldly “mind” would show an all encompassing awesomeness in every area. This test is, instead, consistent with the idea that our minds and faculties are products of an evolutionary history that, while it involved many progressive improvements, didn’t necessarily provide incentives for to-the-max development in every area.

For more on your crazy brain, check out the late, great Jerry Andress playing all sorts of tricks with it (the bolts and nuts at the end is one of the best optical illusions ever constructed).

It’s going to be a busy week for me again, by the way: lots of web design work, and now 55 gallons of saltwater
to take care of (an early Christmas present). I’ll try to keep yakking at least once every day from now on though: long hiatuses are so dull!

Hoodia Hoodoo can’t Scam Skeptics

November 28, 2007

I knew I couldn’t glance over at alt-med megasite NewsTarget and resist ridicule, but there’s simply too much to dash off before work. In the meantime, check out Secundum Artem a where skeptical pharmacy student N.B. does some quick calculations and figures out that there’s something tremendously fishy about popular weight loss supplement “Hoodia”.

The War on Christmas… and on the Golden Compass

November 27, 2007

Two things caught my attention tonight:

First, a Guy in the Pew gives the rational Christian’s take on the War on Christmas. We on the non-believer side of things spend a lot of time bemoaning this phony, bullying crusade for its pandering politics, but Mr. Blanchard reminds believers that those trying to pass this off as a truly Christian cause have some real explaining to do. His argument is similar to what’s always struck me as bizarre about religious support for “In God We Trust” or “Under God. Why get so excited about pushing to get some watered down religious graffiti tagged onto the Pledge and pennies when you live in a country where you can pray all you want out loud and undiluted? Neither atheist nor believer alike should take it for granted.

Second, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist notes the explosion of online religious groups all calling for boycotts of The Golden Compass, a forthcoming film based on the work of outspoken atheist author Phillip Pullman. I’m with Hemant as to how overblown the controversy is. We have to hear over and over that atheists are so militant and uppity, and yet I don’t seem to recall atheists similarly on the warpath over Christian evangelist author C.S. Lewis’ Narnia films. Nor are atheists particularly worked up about the film (honestly, talking animals annoy the heck out of me and I have a hard time seeing myself rushing out to go see it). Again, compare our generally blasé attitude to the marketing mania over The Passion of the Christ, where the amount of grassroots organization and hysterical hype made it seem like the very fate of Christianity rested on its boxoffice returns.

The one thing I sort of sadly expect from Compass is that it will make a convenient target for cultural war spin. The film, which was reportedly plagued by production problems, may or may not be any good on its own rights, and with organized boycott campaigns and media talking heads railing against it, its chances of doing well at the theaters seem slim. That’s going to make it a tempting target for endless overwrought pieces about the film’s poor showing means the recent surge of publicly visible atheism is a fading fad. Conservative news filter Matt Drudge is notorious for juxtaposed stories, especially ones that try to make culture war points by comparing some films to others. I’ll be mighty surprised if he doesn’t start up a section linking every dehyping bit of fluff on the film he can find.

In any case: I’m hard at work composing both a sort of “guide for newbies and journalists” on Expelled, complete with some more information from the pro-science folks “featured” in the recent promotional clip (the ones supposedly threatening Ben Stein for “asking questions”). And as I promised after the recent rounds of back and forth with National Review bloggers over stem cells, I’m also working on a rather weighty piece taking on the common claims about their moral status and proposing a better way.  Plus, hasn’t the aptly named alt-med woo-site NewsTarget published dozens and dozens more wacky articles since I last gave them some love?