Episode 106: Parapsychology

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Lauren, Ashlyn, and Laura discuss the Ganzfeld Experiments, the Global Consciousness Project, Rupert Sheldrake, Daryl Bem, and a psychic dog, and then we finally find out exactly how psychic the panel is with a game of Psychic Fact or Psychic Fiction!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism that is produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics.

Links: Parapsychology (Wikipedia) | Ganzfeld experiment (Wikipedia) | Global Consciousness Project (Wikipedia) | Global Consciousness (The Skeptic’s Dictionary) | Rupert Sheldrake (Wikipedia) | Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries (Scientific American Blog Network) | Why science needs to publish negative results (Elsevier) | Daryl Bem (Wikipedia) | Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect (Daryl Bem) | Back from the Future: Parapsychology and the Bem Affair (CSI) | How much is that doggy in the window? (Richard Wiseman) | Methods of divination (Wikipedia)

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Episode 71: A Tribute to Sylvia Browne

Episode 71: A Tribute to Sylvia Browne

In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Ashlyn Noble discusses the life and times of recently deceased “psychic medium” Sylvia Browne with Donna Harris and Gem Newman, and Gem hosts a game of Psychic Fact or Psychic Fiction!

Life, the Universe & Everything Else is a program promoting secular humanism and scientific skepticism presented by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists & Agnostics of Manitoba.

Links: Sylvia Browne | Stop Sylvia Browne | Robert Lancaster | The Kidnapping of Shawn Hornbeck | Video of the Shawn Hornbeck Predictions | The Kidnapping of Amanda Berry | Forer Effect | Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure | Goodbye Sylvia Browne | Sylvia Browne: A Post-Mortem | On Sylvia Browne and The Death of an Awful Person | Demiurge (Wikipedia, Gnostic Society Library) | Popularity of the Name “Michael” (Baby Center, Wikipedia)

Psychic Fact or Psychic Fiction! Sources: Sylvia Browne: The Next 100 Years | Sylvia Browne’s Predictions for 2008 & 2009 (from the Internet Archive; the current version at Spirit Now has removed some predictions, including the “Aura Scanner” prediction)

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The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves

I received the following message the other day from a close friend of mine.


I saw this and for a moment was terrified until I remembered that I’m friends with YOU and therefore a much more rational person than I might otherwise be just by sheer proximity. Regardless, please remind me again that microwaves aren’t destroying my baby and various loved ones.


The link she provided was The Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves by Mike Barrett of TruthTheory.com. Ah, EMF scare-mongering. It’s been too long, old friend!

I didn’t have much planned for the next few minutes (aside from playing some Super Meat Boy), so I dove right in.

The article is, as you might expect, riddled with misinformation. That misinformation, however, is crammed cheek-by-jowl with accurate statements, leading me to suspect that the author is guilty only of sloppy research, and readily accepted claims from both scientific and unscientific sources—with perhaps a modicum of cherry-picking thrown in. (This is borne out upon an examination of his source list, but we’ll get to that later.)

How Microwaves Work

Let’s start with the author’s description of the process by which microwave ovens heat food:

In order for something to heat in a microwave oven, water must be present within the substance. If water is not present, heating will not occur and it would remain cool. The reason for this is that water molecules within the food vibrate at an incredible speed, creating molecular friction which is responsible for the heating of the food. The structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed. This is much different than any other method of cooking, as other methods such as convection ovens heat up food by transferring heat convectionally from the outside inward.

This description is almost correct, but is guilty of much hyperbole. First of all, it is not true that, lacking water, heating will not occur. What we’re talking about is dielectric heating. While it’s true that dielectric heating works best on water or substances containing water, it will also work on fats, sugars, and anything that contains electric dipoles.

Second, while stating that “the structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed” sounds scary, I’ve been unable to find any evidence that this occurs, and it’s unclear what the dangers would be even if it did. While the molecules certainly do increase in kinetic energy (they move), the author seems to be suggesting that the molecular bonds are actually broken, which would cause the water to decompose into its component hydrogen and oxygen, as occurs in electrolysis. This is a fairly incredible claim that I’ve been unable to substantiate.

The Dangers of Radiation

The author admits that microwaves are not a form of ionizing radiation, although he stresses that non-ionizing radiation can still effect physical alterations. Sure! Like cooking stuff! He then says:

Other forms of ionizing radiation are visible light, ultraviolet and infrared waves, and waves emitted from televisions, cell phones, and electric blankets.

This is completely false. These are forms of non-ionizing radiation. While it is certainly possible that this was simply a typo, it remains irresponsible misinformation.

And then the real absurdity begins:

Although we’ve conducted study after study concluding that no amount of radiation is safe, we don’t really know what all of this means in the long term.

I’m not even sure the author knows what he means, here. He seems to be conflating all forms of radiation, and then stating that the body of scientific literature on the subject concludes that there is no safe amount of any form of radiation.

Of course some amount of radiation is safe! If there were no radiation, we would be blind and we would freeze to death! Just lumping all spectra of electromagnetic radiation together is eggregious, irresponsible nonsense.

The author claims that “Tissues directly exposed to microwaves are subject to the same deformities molecules go through”. This is very misleading.

Sure, microwave radiation can cause burns: that’s why microwave ovens have doors on them specifically designed to block microwave radiation. You don’t want to bathe your hand in high intensity microwaves for the same reason that you don’t want to stick it in a campfire: it’ll burn.

Now you might be worrying that your microwave door could be broken or cracked, and you’re being exposed to dangerous invisible microwaves without your knowledge! Well, stop fretting. If this were happening, you’d know it pretty quickly, because the microwaves would literally be cooking your flesh, and that’s something that we humans tend to notice.

Remember: microwaves are non-ionizing. They don’t cause cancer: they cause heat.

“Microwave Sickness”

The author of the article then provides a laundry-list of nonspecific symptoms that he attributes to so-called “microwave sickness”:

  • Impaired cognition
  • Nausea
  • Vision problems
  • Depression and irritability
  • Weakened immune system
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia and/or sleep disturbances
  • Frequent urination and extreme thirst

Sound familiar?

This so-called “microwave sickness” is just a repackaging of electrosensitivity syndrome, a discredited (and probably psychogenic) disorder that has been shown in controlled trials to no correlation (let alone a causal relationship) to EMF exposure.

Here’s the list of symptoms attributed to electrosensitivity:

  • Fatigue and mental impairment
  • Poor memory and reduced concentration
  • Headache
  • Altered sleep pattern
  • Skin rash

And here are some of the (many, many) symptoms linked to so-called adrenal fatigue:

  • Excessive fatigue and exhaustion, chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance, insomnia
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating, brain fog
  • Low immune function
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to cold or frequent influenza
  • Anxiety, irritability, or depression
  • Reduced memory

Dr. Steven Novella calls these “the common symptoms of life”. Talking about this purported adrenal fatigue, Dr. Novella notes:

Some of these people may have a real underlying disease, and can get distracted from pursuing a proper diagnosis by the offer of a simple fake one. Many people need lifestyle adjustments, and that is where they should focus their efforts – not on magic supplements to treat nonexistent syndromes.

And finally, just for fun, here are the purported symptoms of being attacked by a psychic vampire:

  • Leaky or diminishing aura
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of energy
  • Muscle tension
  • Mental confusion
  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Physical illness

I’m convinced.

And while we’re on the subject…

It’s true that mobile phones, WiFi, etc. use radio waves in the microwave spectrum, but they are hilariously low-intensity. One of the ways that you can tell is that even the tiny bit of radiation that leaks out of a microwave oven is enough to interfere with wireless router traffic: and, as I said earlier, that’s obviously not enough to do any damage.

Cell phones and WiFi, and their related impact on health, are heavily scrutinized, and there is no strong or even middling evidence linking these devices to health problems such as cancer. There are a small number of studies by a few fringe researchers which have failed reproduction by the scientific community. Many of these experiments have startling methodological flaws. Dr. Steven Novella has a great summary of some new research on the subject here.

Also worth noting: any case or covering that purports to block the EMF emitted by cell phones, laptops, etc. (and such devices are popular!) will fall into one of two categories: (1) it won’t do anything; or (2) it will work, and your cell phone/WiFi will immediately stop working, because its signal is blocked.

So… keep that in mind.

The Nazi Connection

And this is where the author of this article really jumps the shark:

Microwaves were first invented by the Nazis in order to provide a method of cooking for their troops during World War II.

Godwin always makes me laugh. Also, I can find no evidence that microwaves were invented by the Nazis, and substantial evidence to the contrary.

The Sources

The author of this article has obviously taken no care in choosing his sources, which all seem to share strong (and fairly transparent) ideological convictions that bias them against good science. They are also uniformly hilarious.

Here are the websites linked to in the “Sources” section at the bottom of the article:

  • Relfe: “Valuable natural health, mind, spirit, financial and other information unifying the whole, rather than just educating a part of the whole.” The main page contains multiple embedded Alex Jones videos, which describe in detail exactly how the government and the scientific establishment are trying to kill you.
  • The Library of Halexandria: “Halexandria is a Synthesis of new physics, sacred geometry, ancient and modern history, multiple universes & realities, consciousness, the Ha Qabala and ORME, extraterrestrials, corporate rule and politics, law, order and entropy, trial by jury, astronomy, monetary policy, scientific anomalies, religion and spirituality, and a whole host of other subjects ranging from astrology and astrophysics to superstrings and sonoluminesence to biblical and geologic histories to numerology, the Tarot, and creating your own reality.” Need I say more?
  • Lita Lee: The website of “nutritionist” (and Ph.D. chemist) Lita Lee. She would love to sell you all sorts of herbal concoctions, so why not mosey on over?
  • Global Healing Center: An online pharmacy! Except it only seems to stock those shady end-cap items that cause pharmacists to hang their heads in embarrassment, saying “We don’t decide what to stock, it comes from corporate.” Lots of cleanses and detoxifying foot pads!
  • Natural Society: This site seems to be the evil twin of Skeptic North.

And here is a list of the peer-reviewed literature cited by the author:

That is all.

Skeptics in the Paper

Today, the Winnipeg Free Press ran an article on the Winnipeg Skeptics. And it was a good one!

During a phone interview last week, Sylvia Browne told the Free Press that on top of her lecture, she’ll be able to deliver psychic messages to as many as 300 audience members whe she appears at Pantages Playhouse Theatre on Thursday night.

Gem Newman has his doubts — which is why he plans to be at the theatre well before the crowds start pouring in.

No, Newman is not a super fan hoping to intercept his idol and score a private reading.

The 26-year-old computer scientist is founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics, a group for people interested in the “investigation and critical examination of extraordinary claims.”

And if anyone provides grist for that mill, he says, it’s Browne and her infamously inaccurate predictions about missing and murdered children.

Newman says he and his cohorts plan to show up outside Pantages before the show simply to offer some food for critical thought to ticket holders who paid up to $96 to hear the self-proclaimed psychic and medium lecture about the afterlife and relay messages from dead relatives and spirit guides.

“A few of us are just going to hand out pamphlets to passersby, explaining how they, too, can appear to be psychic by using some common methods like cold reading,” the animated redhead says over morning coffee at a downtown eatery.

Newman, who is wearing a T-shirt that reads (once you solve the mathematical equation) “Nerds Forever,” stresses that the Sylvia Browne Awareness Campaign is not a protest and skeptics will not be getting in people’s faces.

“Our intention is not to be intrusive or offensive, it’s to educate. A lot of people see these shows and think they’re pretty impressive — and they are if you don’t know what to look for.”

For context, here’s the equation expression she’s talking about:

(Incidentally, you can find that shirt for sale here, in my Zazzle store.)

As an aside, I’ve discovered that I have a lot of trouble smiling in pictures. I was under the distinct impression that I was grinning as hard as I could for that shot.

In addition to online discussions, monthly Drinking Skeptically nights at the King’s Head Pub and an annual SkeptiCamp (a free, day-long “conference for the sharing of ideas”), members also go on field trips. To date, they’ve visited a psychic fair and Winnipeg’s own creation museum. (Christian Evidences Museum is located in the basement of Oxford Bible Church, at 621 Oxford St.)

Scott Carnegie, a 37-year-old television producer, says joining the Winnipeg Skeptics gave him back the sense of community and support he lost when he stopped going to church a few years ago.

“Anybody is who is interested in how the world really works would probably get something out of it,” Carnegie says.

“It can be a real challenge to look at your beliefs and positions and ask yourself if they’re true. That’s a skill I don’t think many people have.”

Carolin Vesely, the reporter who interviewed me, managed to make our two-hour, meandering conversation somewhat coherent. She ended the article with the most important idea that I tried to express during the interview:

“To me, everything is provisional; it’s always open for re-examination.”

The article even features an excellent sidebar on Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (which was at the top of my list when the reporter asked for skeptical literature)!

All in all, I think that the piece is a definite skeptical win.

Edit: I’ve added a scan from my hard-copy of the article. It was at once both startling and humbling to have my image set next to that of Carl Sagan.