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Monday, December 28, 2015

We are experiencing technical difficulty.

Just a short note to let any loyal readers know that due to the new Oklahoma phenomenon of icenadoes, (thanks climate change deniers!) plus the holidays coupled with work issues, I'm going to be taking a brief hiatus. I hope to be back with new posts after the first of the year, and back on a somewhat regular schedule. Some of the topics I'm going to be looking into are GMOs, climate change deniers, psychics, Reiki, and I might dip my toes into the arena of political rhetoric. Plus, I am currently writing a book, and of course trying to get the first episode of Red Dirt Skeptics finished, edited, and published. So, Have a happy holiday, great New Years Eve, and I'll see you in 2016, unless some of the doomsday predictions happen to come true. If you have any suggestions for topics you'd like me to look into and butcher, feel free to leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Chiropractic for the Beginning Skeptic

I hope that everyone is having a happy, safe, and joyous holiday season. This weeks topic is one that has bothered me for quite a few years, and I have personally experienced. I'm talking about chiropractic. As with many of the various alternative medicine practices, it makes a lot of claims about what it is able to do, ranging from helping with lower back back, which is the most likely, to helping with erectile dysfunction and asthma, which are very dubious claims.

The story of chiropractic starts way back in the fog of ancient China and Greece. At least according to the American Chiropractic Association. They say that there are written records that describe spinal manipulation for lower back pain. I have no way to substantiate these claims, so I'll leave them alone. The official origin of chiropractic is a bit more recent. In 1895, Daniel David Palmer, who ran a magnetic healing clinic, tried the first adjustment on a partially deaf janitor in Davenport, Iowa. According to the stories, a few days later, the janitor remarked to Palmer that his hearing seemed to be a bit better. As far as I've been able to find, there were no tests done on the mans ability to hear before or after Palmer's treatment. Palmer began to promote chiropractic shortly afterwards, which was comparable to osteopathy. According to Mirriam-Webster, osteopathy is: a system of medical practice based on a theory that diseases are due chiefly to loss of structural integrity which can be restored by manipulation of the parts supplemented by therapeutic measures (as use of drugs or surgery). Notice that the definition includes the use of drugs or surgery. Chiropractic generally tends to shun the use of more modern medical techniques. Basically, it sounds a lot like physical therapy, except for the whole disease is caused by a loss of structural integrity bit. Both were based in many of the beliefs that drove the spiritualism movement at the end of the 19th century, including magnetism, vitalism, and naturalism, which makes it very difficult to use the scientific method to ascertain the efficacy of treatment. In 1897, Palmer started the Palmer School of Chiropractic, which is still around. Palmer had made the claim that adjustments, or as they are known in the business, subluxations, are the key to curing all disease. Since then, the interest and use of chiropractic had waxed and waned for decades, until the 1990's when there was a steady rise in the interest and use of chiropractic. There have been several schisms in the history of chiropractic. One of the first was over what Palmer described as "innate intelligence". This is directly related to the magnetism and vitalism ideas of the late 1800's. Many practitioners have moved away from this idea because they feel that it prevents them from being taken seriously in the scientific medicine community. Another schism occurred over the idea of chiropractic being the "only" treatment for disease, or as part of a suite of treatments. The straights, as Palmer called them, believed that chiro (yes, I'm shortening the word from here on out.) was not just the best treatment for all illnesses, but it was the only one. The mixers, which Palmer despised, thought that chiro could be used in addition to surgery and drugs. Palmer felt that the mixers were polluting the "specific, pure, and unadulterated" chiropractic tradition. His words, not mine. This schism still exists today, with the straights being in the minority.
 As I mentioned earlier, Palmer started the first chiropractic college in 1897, and today, there are dozens of accredited colleges around the world. Many of them follow a similar education program, though some are regarded as being better than others. Most of the accreditation seems to be through the ACA (American Chiropractic Association) and not the AMA (American Medical Association) In regards to the US, each state requires practicing chiropractors to be licensed. This started in 1907, and Louisiana was the last state to require it in 1974. When it comes to monitoring and discipline of chiropractors, they are pretty much self regulated, reporting to the Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards. An interesting read on licensing, with a few notations, can be found at To date, chiro is still viewed as an alternative or fringe medical procedure by the medical community at large, though holistic and integrated practitioners do include it in their services.

Theory and Practices:
The basic theory behind chiro concerns subluxation, which is that there is a misalignment of the spine, which causes various illnesses and conditions.  There are some interesting articles on the Science Based Medicine Blog and Quack Watch on this, as well as chiro in general, which I'll put in the footnotes. Many chiropractors, though not all, believe that a misalignment of the spine can cause problems in the nervous system, which in turn can lead to disease and problems with various organs. If you can fix the problem by manipulating the spine, then you can cure the disease. The way this is normally achieved is by attempting to move the vertebrae into what the practitioner deems to be a proper position, which often results in the familiar popping sound. Many chiros will use X-rays to see if the spine is out of alignment and try and determine what they will need to do to put it back. Many people do often report that they feel better for a while after one of these treatments, though how much is due to either endorphin release or the placebo effect is nearly impossible to tell. There is a minority of chiros that don't believe in the subluxation theory, and feel that chiro should be viewed more as a form of physical therapy or for relief of lower back pain. These folks are often dismissed by the larger chiropractic crowd. I would go into the details of what is involved, but almost everyone has some idea. Just in case you don't, basically it involves the practitioner contorting the patient's back and applying pressure along the spine in an attempt to realign the back. There are some minute variations, but that is basically the gist of it. Of course, there are some chiros that will incorporate TCM (traditional chinese medicine) such as acupunture and acupressure or they will include chakras, Reiki, crystals, herbalism, natural medicine, or homeopathy into their practice, but these are all separate topics, many of which I have already written about and don't feel like going into here.

The Claims:
Here is where we get into the fun stuff folks, what the believers in chiropractic claim it can do. Much like every other alternative medicine under the sun, there are a wide variety of claims. However, unlike many other types of alt-med, there are practitioners that will tell you it is good for 1 thing, and anything else, you need to see either a general practitioner or a specialist. Due to the various medical and advertising laws, many chiros are pretty careful about what they say they can do. They tend to avoid words like "cure" and "heal" and instead use more generic terms like "treat" or "relieve" or "help with". But they still make a number of claims on what they can do. According to the ACA, they can treat back and neck pain, headaches, injuries of the musculoskeletal system, and general health issues, because the structure affects overall health. You will also find chiros advertising that they can help with some of the following;
Plus many, many more. Notice that the body systems that are claimed to be effected are much more than just the spine. The immune system, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and there's a couple of neurological conditions listed as well. Other practitioners will claim that they can treat a wide variety of viral and bacterial infections as well. It's making me think of that old song "Dem Bones". You know the one. "The head bone is connected to the neck bone"...etc. I think that the chiropractic community knows a few more verses than most other people. The site I got the list from says that they don't treat, just diagnose and remove subluxations, which in turns allows better communication between the brain and body, which is a common belief among many practitioners. The exact mechanism that purports to do all this is a complete unknown, and even chiros will admit it. I will grant that all the bodily systems are connected in the loosest sense by all being in the same bag of skin and it's all controlled by the nervous system, but that's about it. Popping your back will not help with asthma. There is absolutely no reason that it would. Asthma is often an inflammation in the lungs, so trying to realign the spine wouldn't have any effect on that.

Now to pull the curtain aside and have a look at the evidence:

That's pretty much what I found. There is some evidence that chiropractic adjustments can have some effect on lower back pain, but that's really about it. Just using your Google machine, you'll find lots of reports on how well it can treat a wide variety of conditions, but most of these are pretty biased. Trying to find an unbiased view is actually fairly difficult. I don't want to rely too heavily on people like Steve Novella or Mark Crislip, who are well known in the skeptic communities as promoters of science based medicine. So I try and stick to relatively unbiased sites and just see what the studies and evidence happen to say. If you look at the CDC you'll see a few studies on the efficacy of chiro, and for the most part, they seem to show some effect for back pain, but not much else. The studies that claim to show efficacy for other conditions are poorly done, with few if no controls, rely heavily on anecdotal evidence, or are completely unrepeatable. If you look at the NIH, you'll see a lot of the same. If you look close, you'll see a lot of papers with a particular name on them. Edzard Ernst. He has spent most of his life studying forms of alternative medicine, including going through a chiropractic college. He has probably done more study into these issues than anyone else alive, and to be honest, I tend to believe what he has found. Here is a link to an article that he wrote on chiro, and just for the hell of it, here is his site. (Because I don't put enough links in my posts. :p) A major critique of chiro, as well as most other alt med practices, is a complete lack of well done studies that actually show a statistical significance for their efficacy, though this doesn't stop the believers from using them as evidence that they were right, and Big Pharma is trying to keep them silent on the issue. Yep, there is a minor conspiracy thread that is woven throughout most alt med mythology.

The cost of going to a chiropractor may seem to be fairly small, with the average session costing around $65 or so (in the US), but consider that they will often want you to come back anywhere from twice a month to twice a week. That can end up being anywhere from $1,560-$6,760 a year, using the average cost per visit. Of course, some charge less, some charge more, and there are insurance policies that cover this. There are going to be risks any time someone is messing with your back and neck. This can be something as relatively minor as a pinched nerve or stiffness. However, there are much more serious risks, including paralysis, stroke, and even death. These risks are greater for infants and toddlers. Most chiros won't touch a small child, though as with anything else, if you look hard enough, you'll find one that does. According to the Mayo Clinic, some problems that can stem from having an adjustment done are a herniated disk or a vertebral artery dissection (a particular type of stroke). From the website,  "There are well-documented medical cases of serious disorder to the cervical spine, cervical disc, cerebellum, spinal cord or to the cerebral arteries which ascend through the foramina in the cervical vertebrae, all of which are therefore subject to be bruised and injured with forceful manipulation. There are also well-documented cases of occlusion of cerebral vessels and injury to the brain stem which involves a key area for regulation of the head and neck and an area through which all important outgoing stimuli from the nervous System or incoming sensory data are fed. Such thrombotic lesions are productive of grave and permanent neurological defects, either by infection of the brain stem or stricture by injury to the arteries which supply these vital regions." Of course, Edzard Ernst has written an article titled "20 Things Most Chiropractors Won't Tell You". (I'll admit it. Yes, I am using a somewhat biased source here. That is mostly due to the fact that the chiro industry is pretty insular when it comes to reporting injuries and complications from any of their practitioners. They are, for the most part self regulating, so everything is done in-house, unless someone brings a lawsuit, or it gets into mass media.) And there is of course the reported cases of people being crippled or dying due to their treatments. In 2014, here in Oklahoma, a 30 year old man died after receiving a treatment and suffering a stroke on the chiros table. There was a systematic study done on deaths caused by adjustments, and the conclusion is that the risks do not out weigh the possible benefits. Tim Farley, of has an article on there as well. There are also many stories of children being accidentally killed by chiros. These stories are pretty gruesome and depressing, so I'm not going to go into detail or post links to them. If you're in a really morbid mood, just Google the terms Chiropractic child death. I'm just going to say in plain and simple english "Never take a child to a chiropractor! It's a damn bad idea all the way 'round!" A child's skeleton isn't developed enough to withstand a chiropractic adjustment. They are still growing and developing, and these treatments can easily cause permanent problems that the child will have to live with for the rest of their life. 

As I have said before, I'm not an sort of scientist or researcher. I simply attempt to look into the various issues I cover, and I do try and give everything a fair shake. (I guess that makes me a researcher of sorts?) That being said, most things I write about just don't have the evidence to support their claims, and chiropractic isn't any different. There is some evidence to support the claims of helping with certain types of lower back pain, and there is a small contingent of chiropractic practitioners that will send patients to general practitioners or specialists if it is something other than that. But the majority of proponents for chiro will claim it effective for a great many other problems, saying that they all stem from subluxations. This is another form of magical thinking. Yes, there are hundreds of studies claiming to show the efficacy of chiropractic and the believers will point out that there aren't nearly as many studies showing either little or no effect. It's simply a matter of quantity or quality. And before anyone says it, I'm going to go ahead and say no, chiro won't help with your childs ear infection, and if they have chronic ear infections, take them to a pediatrician damn it! Once again , any cure-all cures nothing. For once, I'm going to include a variety of other skeptical resources for you to look through. These guys are medical professionals and know what they are talking about. I'm just a simple jackass that tries to keep an open mind and look at all the evidence. So, until next time, Be Good, Be Skeptical, and Be sure to wash your hands.

Other resources:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What the hell is Morgellons?

I thought I'd take a brief break from my poorly written and worded opinion pieces and my more on going "Things for the Beginning Skeptic" series and try tackling a topic that I've been interested in ever since I heard about it. Not to fear, there are still many more Beginning Skeptic articles to come, including Aliens, Therapeutic Touch and Reiki, Assisted Communication, Chiropractic, and Dowsing. I might try to do one later on how to determine if scientific results, as presented by most popular media outlets, can be trusted. (Hint: Look at the sources)  But enough of that. Today, I'm going to take a look at Morgellons Disease.

What is Morgellons?
The term Morgellons Disease was coined, according to Wikipedia, in 2002 by Mary LeiTao. According to the Mayo Clinic, Morgellons disease is an uncommon, unexplained skin disorder characterized by sores, crawling sensations on and under the skin, and fiber-like filaments emerging from the sores. It's not certain what these strings are. Some say they are wisps of cotton thread, probably coming from clothing or bandages. Others say they result from an infectious process in the skin cells. Further study is needed.

Also WebMd says this about the condition:
Morgellons is a controversial and poorly understood condition in which unusual thread-like fibers appear under the skin. The patient may feel like something is crawling, biting, or stinging all over.

Some medical experts say Morgellons is a physical illness. Others suggest it is a type of psychosis called "delusional parasitosis," in which a person thinks parasites have infected their skin.

Your doctor may call it an "unexplained dermopathy," which means a skin condition that occurs withou
t a known reason. Other medical professionals have dubbed the condition "fiber disease."
 I know some of the readers will be saying "Oh great, now this putz is referencing WebMd." But when you think of the number of people that will use the site, and the internet in general, to self-diagnose, it makes perfect sense to include their definition in this article.
Basically what these 2 definitions are saying is that Morgellons is a condition where unknown hairs or fibers appear either underneath the first dermal layer or are growing out through the skin. A common image of this looks a bit like:
Image from

There were a lot of other pictures I could have used, but for some reason, many of them were of some guys junk or some truly gruesome lesions on the head and face. The picture I'm using is zoomed in way too close for me to determine if there is a scar there or not. As for these fibers, they come in a variety of colors and textures. This implies that there isn't a single source, and the CDC does have something to say on it, which I'll bring up later. For the people suffering from this condition, it can be terrifying, and frustrating. There is no known cause or treatment, though there has been some relief with certain psychiatric medications. It doesn't appear to be transmissible or infectious, nor any sort of genetically inheritable condition, though there are those that claim it is passed down through family lines. Some of the symptoms are itching, the feeling of insects crawling on the skin, rashes, sores, fatigue, short term memory loss, and of course the mysterious fibers.

What causes it?
What the exact cause or source of the condition is, no one knows, but there are several hypotheses, and a couple of them will have you scratching your head, saying "What the hell?". Many of the possible, or proposed causes of this condition tend to be psychological in nature. One possible candidate is Delusional Parasitosis, which is a condition that has the exact same symptoms as Morgellons. Some health professionals feel that Morgellons may just be a new name for a known condition. Delusional Parasitosis is basically a mental condition where the patient believes that they are infested with bugs, either on or under the skin. To be perfectly honest, this seems to be one of the most likely causes of Morgellons. According to the CDC:

 Neuropsychological testing revealed a substantial number of study participants who scored highly in screening tests for one or more co-existing psychiatric or addictive conditions, including depression, somatic concerns (an indicator of preoccupation with health issues), and drug use.
 Combine mental health issues with either over medicating or the wrong medication and illegal drugs, and you could develop a condition that exactly mirrors Morgellons. The fibers that people report finding could come from their clothing and be accidentally inserted into the skin, and the skin heals up around the fiber. Again from the CDC:

Upon thorough analysis, most sores appeared to result from chronic scratching and picking, without an underlying cause.  And now for some of the fun ones. Get your popcorn ready. There are claims that the government, Big Pharma, or the NWO is doing this, either through some unknown infectious agent, chemtrails, fluoride, vaccinations, or while their victims are asleep. Damn you, NWO!!!
Picture from
Not them. Sorry. The NWO I'm talking about is, of course, the nefarious, no good, out to take it all New World Order. I guess that still describes the wrestlers, doesn't it. How about the evil cabal that runs all the governments and media and wants everyone under their control. Yet they still can't get Alex Jones off the air?? Yes, there are conspiracy theories tied to Morgellons. Some people claim that the fibers are metallic and are either some sort of receiver or transmitter for tracking them. Which is an almost perfect segue to the next theory.
You had to know this was coming.
Yep, there are some people that believe that the fibers are some sort of alien implant, organic communication device, symbiote, offspring, or tracking device. All I'm going to say is you have to prove that intelligent extraterrestrial life has visited the planet before you can make the claim that they are doing more than just probing butts.
According to the CDC and other centers of medical expertise, the fibers normally end up being cellulose,  which are compatible with cotton. Other fibers have been found to be nylon or rayon. And there have been pieces of metal, which have turned out to be normal Earth based alloys. 

Are there any treatments?
There are 2 completely different routes you can go down if you believe you have Morgellons. The science based approach involved determining what the underlying cause is. Quite often, this can be mental health issues such as depression, withdrawal symptoms from some addictive substance. or some other psychosis. Drug use can also contribute to people believing that they have this condition, so treating the addiction may help with this as well. The other way someone can go is the pseudoscience route. Some recommended treatments include colloidal silver (Wow! 2 Alex Jones references in one article.), homeopathy, acupuncture, chelation therapy (removing heavy metals from the body), various substances in the bath, and all sorts of other serious Woo Woo type BS. Most of these are harmless, except financially over the long term. Some, such as chelation, can have some pretty serious side effects. Each Morgellons support group or treatment group has their own methods that they use and claim to be the one and only, or at least the best. That's not counting the hundreds of websites and bloggers, either claiming they have the cure or cutting and pasting from someone else's site.

Given that, outside of a lot of anecdotal evidence and claims, I have never seen any actual evidence that Morgellons is an actual physical condition. It seems to my layperson understanding to generally be a more psychological problem than a physical one. I highly doubt that the NWO is secretly working with the Illuminati and the Reptilians to have the Greys fly overhead spraying chemtrails that infect a select section of the population with little fibers and Big Pharma is covering the whole thing up by claiming them to be clothing fibers.That would involve taking a step or three away from reality. It is most likely a condition that would be best treated by someone from the mental health field.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Ghosts for the Beginning Skeptic

Ok folks, as promised, here is the next installment of the "Things for the Beginning Skeptic" series. I am going to try and stick to more researched topics for a while, so the lag between posts might be even longer than it has been. This is a topic that has interested me for years, mostly because I grew up listening to ghost stories that supposedly involved various family members.I'm not going to get into the various ghost hunting groups or the equipment that they claim to use. I'm just going to talk about the supposed types of ghosts.I don't mean Slimer, Casper, or Christmas Past. I mean poltergeists, haints, spooks, spirits, and hauntings. I guess that as usual we should start with a ....

Definition: According to Mirriam-Webster, a ghost is: a disembodied soul; especially :  the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness. A ghost could be most easily defined as the energy left behind by a person or event that has an effect on the visible world. I personally would define them as an illusion or a hallucination. Often, they are reported as a feeling of being watched, a shape seen from the corner of the eye, a shadowy figure, or any of a number of other vague descriptions. Ghosts, in their various forms, are often blamed for odd occurrences, such as a chair rocking when no one is in it, a door opening or closing on it's own, or a sudden chill. Like so many other things in the world of pseudoscience, instead of looking for natural explanations first, believers in ghosts jump straight to the end of the line and yell GHOST! 

Let's take a look at the various types of ghosts out there. Like a lot of my previous Beginning Skeptic posts, I'm going to attempt to put them into classifications, though it's going to be a bit tricky with something as ephemeral as ghosts. (See what I did there?) One of the problems with this approach is that every region, and even every group, has their own way of defining what type of supernatural presence they believe they are dealing with. So I'm just going to wing it and try and group them by either what they do, or the claimed effect that they have. I know I'm not going to get to everyone's favorites, but consider this a rough list.

Visual: These would include things such as orbs, rods, shadow men, movement from the edge of vision, the stereotypical hazy humanoid, or in some cases creature, someone that suddenly disappears, someone out of place like a confederate soldier at a Starbucks, unless you live in Georgia, and so on. You get the idea. These are the ones that people either see directly, or indirectly through pictures, movies and reflections. The have a variety of names, such as ghost (which applies to nearly everything in these classifications), spook, specter, haint, phantom, and apparition. Some famous ones are The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Resurrection Mary (though she might actually qualify as a poltergeist), and Anne Boylen and several other in the Tower of London. I found a list of "!0 Famous Ghosts" on The main trait of these types are that they are strictly visual. People claim that they see them pass through walls or other people, and there is no physical substance to them, and little to no interaction with the physical world. With the orbs and rods, these are normally only seen when someone is reviewing pictures. To be honest, I really didn't want to include them because they have been so thoroughly debunked for so long. In case you don't know, orbs are normally either dust or water droplets that are illuminated by the camera flash. The rods are most likely flying insects that are caught up in the flash and the light is reflected off of their bodies. You can read more about orbs and rods at the Skeptics Dictionary.

Physical: In this group, I'm going to include anything that folks claim can actually interact with the physical world. This would include poltergeists and spirits. These are the supposed sources of odd events happening, such as something falling off of a shelf, objects moving around seemingly on their own, people getting mysterious scratches or bruises or even cold chills. There are also reports of dishes being flung across a room, people being levitated or thrown, furniture being moved about or placed oddly. People have also claimed to have symbols or words appear on the walls, normally in a blood like substance. This is what the movie "Poltergeist" is based on. I believe that possessions would also fall into this category, and I'm not going to make separate categories for angels and demons. Sometimes, these are normally the result of someone seeking attention. Other times, they are normal events, such as a door that's not quite level shutting, that take on a creepy nature due to the mindset of the witness. There are some fairly well known events, such as the Coventry Poltergeist, the Bell Witch, and of course the Amityville House. Wikipedia has a decent article on poltergeists.

Auditory: I'm just putting this one in because I grew up hearing stories about banshees. Really quickly, if you hear the cry of a banshee, either you or someone close to you is going to die or have great misfortune, or someone has just died. A lot of the older clans seem to have a specific banshee tied to them, so if a family member hears their families banshee, they supposedly know that something has happened. Most likely, owls or some other night bird are the primary source for this story. The Best representation of a banshee can be seen in the movie "Darby O'Gill and the Little People". If you haven't seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again. There are also reports of mysterious whispers, footsteps, laughing, and animal noises that "can't be explained" They can be explained. Someone in another room or even house talking, kids laughing, animals make noise, and feet make sounds. What most people aren't considering is that sounds can be transmitted through solid objects, and when they are, they get distorted. Also, many people don't seem to realize that sounds can carry for quite a ways, especially at night. I could crowbar EVPs into this, but they are going to be part of the Ghost Hunting post I'm currently working on.

Hauntings: These are interesting because instead of an individual person being affected, it's a general area, location or even an item. Often people report seeing events from the past being replayed (also referred to as time slips) or seeing people from a different era walking about. Hauntings can actually fall under every category of ghost because there can be claims of visual happenings, like people suddenly appearing or disappearing, physical events, such as furniture moving or unexplained injuries, and auditory, like voices coming from the walls. These are normally older structures which are going to have a lot of creaks, drafts, rattling pipes, ans squeaky boards. You'll often see the hunter groups go into these places, get the shit scared out of them, and then, in a very professional manner, say it was because of ghosts. Now then, haunted items are an interesting beast in and of themselves. These are objects that are believed to have some sort of a supernatural force attached to them. There are dolls, knives, cabinets, blankets, and tons of other things that some people feel are possessed by some type of spirit. A common report you'll often hear is "When we brought X into the house, suddenly Y started happening." This is normally a case of association. They notice something, say a pipe rattling in the wall, after bringing a supposedly haunted object in. Just because they never noticed it before doesn't mean that it wasn't happening and they ignored it. It could also be a coincidence that whatever the problem is started at the same time as the object coming into the house. Another factor that a lot of these haunted houses, and even the objects, have in common are young children and teenagers. Now, I will admit that trying to explain a haunted battlefield is quite a bit harder, at least for me, as I have never been to one. The odds are more likely to be in the favor of a delusion or hallucination combined with the areas history as well as folk tales that have probably been told since right after the battle ended.

Demons and Angels: There are folks that believe demons and angels can directly interact with the physical world. Of course the best known examples of each are possession with demons and guardian angels, though there are small groups that seem to believe angels can possess people too. Once again, this is a squishy area, as demons get blamed for many other types of spirit events. Of course, these also have a religious undertone, and this is where exorcisms some in, which would be a whole other topic. Many reports of demons and angels often involve either children and teens, or people who are suffering from some serious mental issues.

While I can't say definitively that ghosts don't exist, I can say that the odds of there being some form of extinct person walking around scaring the hell out of tourists is highly unlikely. All the gadgets and tools used by, and I do laugh a bit at the term, professional ghost hunters simply show that they have no idea what they are doing. There has never been any actual proof of ghosts. There have been pictures, yes. People have had odd experiences too. Weird thing have happened in spooky locations with a history. However, most of the time, these can be explained with more mundane theories. Once again, pareidolia, and a lack of critical thinking rear their ugly heads. An interesting thing to note is that while reports of ghosts have been steadily decreasing in the modern world, they are rapidly being replaced by reports of aliens. The stories are almost identical, but the perpetrator has changed. As always, if someone can produce actual, testable evidence, I'll change my mind on the matter. Until then the closest you'll probably get to see a ghost is...
Thanks to the guys at Blurry Photos podcast and C-Webb's Paranormal Skeptic Academy for giving me the idea of how to approach this. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Science, skepticism, and the wonders of the world (Opinion)

Hope that everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving holiday, or if you're not in the U.S., your Thursday. As always, things have been a bit hectic here at the Skeptical Okie headquarters. We're hoping to begin the Red Dirt Skeptics podcast pretty soon. The first episodes should be coming out in January, though that is subject to change. Another bit of fun that's cropped up recently, and completely unrelated to this post, is the resurgence of a group that I was sure was dead and gone. This group is called "Oklahomans for Vaccine Choice" This is a blatantly anti-vax group, plain and simple. For several years, their website was basically dead. They recently did a show, and yes, I am using show instead of talk, at UCO. Luckily, Caleb Lack and the UCO Skeptics were there to try and have a discussion with them. I'm going to do an interview with Caleb later on this, so I'll try and keep you posted. I know I've done a couple of opinion pieces in a row, and I'm hoping to have another For the Beginning Skeptic article out soon. Now on to the main point of todays article.

Often, I hear people saying that science just wants to get rid of all the wonder in the world and replace it with facts and numbers. It's not just the pseudoscience crowd that says this, it's often just regular people that don't fall into either the skeptical or pseudoscience camps. I really feel that this does a great disservice to science and skepticism. Yes, science wants to know how and why things work, and be able to describe them in a quantitative manner. That doesn't mean that the wonder of the world would be destroyed. In all honesty, it increases it greatly. Look at it this way:

 Step outside and look at a flower. Then consider this: In order for you to see the flower, even if it's a simple dandelion, there so many things that had to happen first. The photon that bounces off of the flower and enters your eye started in the heart of our sun. It took up to a million years for the photon to leave the core of the sun and reach it's surface. Then it has to leave the sun, travel 91 million miles (at it's closest point) and reach Earth, which it does in 8 minutes. That single photon then travels through the atmosphere, avoiding hitting anything else, hit the petals of the flower and ricochet into your eye and then your eye and brain translate that into a visual image.
For that flower to deflect the photon, there has been million years of evolution, with the ancestors surviving various weather conditions, not being eaten, adapting to different environmental conditions, and finding a suitable partner to reproduce with. They have also had to be able to compete with other lifeforms for valuable resources, and this flower in particular had to germinate in a suitable location, survive insects and herbivores, lawnmowers and herbicides, and develop and grow a flower bloom. Also consider the very interesting fact that, in the case of the dandelion, the flower isn't actually yellow. It's every color except yellow. The way that color works is that the one you see is the one that is reflected back. All the other colors like red, green, blue, etc, are actually absorbed by the flower, and because yellow light isn't absorbed by the flower, it is the one that you see.
 In order for you to see the flower, once again there was millions of years of evolution, starting from single celled organisms, with your direct ancestors surviving multiple mass extinction events, changing and adapting to a wide range of climates. They also had to spread around the planet, develop senses to interpret the world around them, and in the case of humans, develop a brain capable of appreciating the environment around them. Then consider the fact that your parents, their parents, and so on and so on, had to meet, create a child, and that child grow to maturity and procreate themselves. If they had met a different person and had children with them, you might not exist. There are around 100 million sperm trying to reach an egg, and you are the one that won the race. And to up the odds of your existence even more, roughly 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages.
 Back to the single photon hitting your eye. You had to develop an optical system and brain capable of capturing the photon, and translating it into a visual image that is understandable. Then, you had to be in the correct place at the correct time for that individual photon to leave the sun, travel through space, get through the atmosphere, bounce off the flower and enter your eye. If you're a statistician, try figuring the odds on all that.
Science and skepticism aren't trying to destroy all the wonder in the world. They actually enhance and improve the wonder, especially when you consider the odds of anything actually happening. This is why I prefer science to bullshit. There are enough amazing things to see, learn, and experience in the world without making more up. You don't need spirits, monsters, magic powers, or mysterious magical medicine when there is physics, biology, science, and actual medicine to study and enjoy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The War on Christmas 2015 (They shot first!)

Once again it's that time of year. The air is getting cooler, the leaves are changing color, the days are getting shorter, and there are already battle cries about a war on Christmas. Recently, in a viral video, YouTube evangelist  Joshua Feuerstein went on a tirade about Starbucks. Not that they seem to be everywhere, but instead they didn't put Merry Christmas on their holiday cup. In his video on Facebook, he says that they are taking Christ and Christmas off of their plain red cups and that employees aren't allowed to say Merry Christmas.
They aren't plain red, they do have the companies logo too.

 I personally don't recall ever seeing Christ on their cups, but then again, I don't go to Starbucks that often. I'm sure some of their more talented baristas could do it in the foam, if you asked nicely. And as far as I can tell, there aren't any specific rules about their employees not being allowed to tell people Merry Christmas. They may not have said it because It's not even Thanksgiving yet, Dumbass! (The video came out in early November) He then goes to claim that he "tricked" Starbucks by telling them his name was Merry Christmas and getting them to put it on his cup. Ohhh, very sneaky Mr. Feuerstein. No one would ever figure out what you were trying to do.I'm imagining the barista just staring at him, shrugging, and as they write Merry Christmas on his red cup, they think "Whatever weirdo. Halloween is just wrapping up." The video ends with him saying that he knew it would offend Starbucks, so he wore a jesus christ shirt into the store and because they "hate the second amendment", he carried his gun, which he then pulls out and displays to the camera. Even in an open carry state, I think this may have been slightly illegal. His first comment under the video says that he pranked them, and they hate it! In all caps, of course. Then a bunch of posts, and he tries to tag such luminaries as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and The Blaze. Basically, he's being a media whore. Trying to read all the comments, it would seem that a lot of them have been deleted. Gee, I wonder why. Needless to say, this joker has been laughed at and taken apart everywhere he's gone. I've already written about the so-called War on Christmas in the past, and I will admit it wasn't my best post, though it is still one of my most popular. Much like every other year, it is the vocal, right-wing, conservative christians that actually started the War on Christmas by saying there is a War on Christmas. (Historically, the Protestants started it by making it illegal) I have been seeing ads for Christmas sales, gift ideas, decorations, and recipes since before Halloween. So, 3 months of Christmas noise, and as soon as 1 business doesn't have something that is representative of their ideals on their merchandise, all hell breaks loose. Luckily, most of the claims this year have been laughable and fairly pathetic, but I am going to imagine that as the holiday gets closer, they'll get more and more vocal and determined. Personally, I feel that all this noise these folks make about how the liberal atheist LGBT commie agenda is going to destroy christmas just shows their fear that the world is becoming more secular, and soon the radical christians may become obsolete. 

I know that this was a more rambling post than they have been lately. I just wanted to write a bit about Feuerstein and his latest loud mouthed bit of stupidity. I've seen this guys videos a few times, and I always get angry, wanting to know how anyone can believe these things. This war on christmas bullshit just irks the hell out of me, and trying to put everything into a single coherent post is rather difficult for me. There are so many different angles and subtopics that I would like to approach. The problem is that the research tends to overlap quite a bit and the narrative weaves back and forth a lot. This is a topic that would probably be better suited for a book. I will simply say there is no war on christmas, the Religious Reich are simply over reacting to little things, and I personally enjoy celebrating a secular christmas with my family. I'm going to leave this as a relatively short post. This one is more of a cathartic release than any sort of deeper look into a topic. I'm not sure I would want to look very deep into Feuerstein.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Skepticism and critical thinking in Oklahoma

Oklahoma seems to be known for a few things. Cattle, cowboys, tornadoes, OU, football, James Inhofe, Tom Coburn, Sally Kern, farmers, the bible belt, rodeos, meth labs, and country musicians. And did I mention the tornadoes and meth labs? (there's a movie idea. MethNado! starring Jodie Sweetin, Eddie Van Halen and Ted Haggard)  But we have something else in this state. We have some very good skeptics and critical thinkers.  Not too bad in a state that regularly is in the news for people doing some really weird shit because of magical thinking. We do have a few notable skeptics that I feel really need to be talked about and get more attention from the larger skeptical community. I can't mention everyone in the skeptical community here in Oklahoma, though I think everyone in all the skeptical, free thought, and critical thinking groups really do deserve more notice than they currently get. So, first of all, to everyone, thank you for fighting the good fight, and if I don't mention you, I am truly sorry. You all deserve more recognition for what you do. Unfortunately, I don't know you all personally, though I would really like to. So if you ever see me in public, come up and say hi. I haven't bitten anyone in weeks now. I am only going to talk a bit about the few I know personally, and hopefully get more people interested in what they do.

Dr. Bryan Farha:
Dr. Farha (better dressed fellow on the right)

Dr. Bryan Farha is the first skeptic I'm going to talk about. He is the professor and director of Applied Behavioral Studies/Counseling at Oklahoma City University (OCU). and slightly notorious with the psychic community. I met him originally when I asked him to come and speak to OSS about his books "Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis" and "Pseudoscience and Deception: The Smoke and Mirrors of Paranormal Claims", which you can buy on Amazon, and I highly recommend reading them. He has also written for The Huffington Post and Skeptic Magazine. I had been following his work for years and didn't realize it. He is also notorious for challenging the late Sylvia Browne concerning her acceptance of the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge. She had accepted the challenge, then back down, claiming there was no money. Dr Farha sent a certified letter to her showing the money. She still didn't respond, so when she appeared on the Larry King show, he called in, and he does admit he lied to get through the screeners. When he got to talk to her, he asked her why she still hadn't done the Challenge like she had said she was going to. You can read a bit more about it on He is very personable and funny, and has been willing to help out or answer questions any time I've asked. He was also on a panel during Oklahoma's first skeptical conference. along with 2 other skeptics and 3 believers in various pseudoscience. He has probably been involved in the skeptical community longer than any of the others that I'm going to talk about, but he doesn't really have much of an online presence.

Dr. Caleb Lack:
Dr. Lack presenting at SkeptiOKcon

Dr. Caleb Lack is an author of quite a few books a blogger for the Skeptic Ink Network, and is also an Assistant Professor of Psychology and the Counseling Practicum Coordinator in the Department of Psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), as well as the sponsor for the UCO Skeptics. I met him, much like Dr. Farha, when I asked him to come and speak at a Skeptics in the Pub for OSS. He is an excellent presenter and funny as hell. In terms of his books, Dr. Lack primarily writes about psychological issues and anxiety disorders. You can but them on Amazon as well. His books are written so even a layperson like myself can read them and understand what he is discussing. Dr. Lack has also been very active in the local skeptical community, presenting several talks on research concerning paranormal beliefs, hosting Oklahoma's first skeptical conference, SkeptiOKcon, handing out pamphlets in right before a psychic's show, doing interviews for podcasts, and attending several SiTP's. He also has a pretty good online presence. He has a website,, he's occasionally on Twitter @professorlack, and he has a public Facebook page . You can also read his blog, The Great Plains Skeptic on the Skeptic Ink Network, or watch him on YouTube, which has videos of some of his lectures. He has always been willing to give me a hand or answer a question, and has even gone out of his way to help with a certain project I was attempting.

The Blueball Skeptics:

The Blueball Skeptics is a podcast hosted by a couple of fellow Oklahomans, Damion Reinhardt and Chas Stewart. The don't put out a lot of episodes, but what they have are pretty good, including an interview with Caleb Lack and another with DJ Grothe. Personally, I think episodes 6&7 are their best to date. Damion and chas are both fairly active on Twitter, and you can follow them @D4M10N and @BirdTerrifier respectively. You can also follow the podcast @BlueBallSkeptic. Damion also writes for The Skeptic Ink Network under Background Probability. Damion has also given a presentation for OSS that ended up being titled "Listen to Data or people gonna die!" and I created an image for it:
                                 (Not too bad, if I say so myself)
I met both of these fellows at Dr. Lacks presentation for OKSS. They were funny, and very sharp. They can be a bit acerbic at times, but it's mostly meant in good humor. Like everyone else I've already mentioned in this post, I greatly enjoy getting to talk to these guys, and they've been a big help whenever I've had questions or needed help.

Beth, Collin, and Riley:
Finally, I have to mention the three most important skeptics in my life. My wife is the one that actually introduced me to the skeptical community, though at the time it was a misunderstanding on my part. (I know I've told the story already, but it's still funny) She told me about a little podcast called "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe". I thought it was a continuation of the "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy." I listened to them and realized that I wasn't the only person that thought the way I do, and was instantly hooked. Since then she has not only tolerated all my wild and crazy ideas, like starting a scientific skepticism organization in Oklahoma when everything else seemed to be more atheist based, doing the SiTP's, finding speakers, writing this blog, and joining 2 podcasts and starting one of our own (coming soon! Working Title is now "Those Blasted Skeptics!"), but she has actually encouraged me to continue, even when I get so frustrated or depressed (yes, I do deal with depression) that I just want to give up. She has been my base when I need a reality check, and the ice to my inferno when I get pissed about some BS woo that's cropped up. I've known her for nearly 20 years, and she has always been able to keep me in check, which she will probably admit, isn't easy. She is one of the main reasons that The Skeptical Okie even exists. My sons are also important skeptics in my life, though one of them is only a few months old. Collin, the older boy, has already debated with a Bigfoot believer, (ask Caleb if you follow him on Twitter), introduced me at an SiTP, and spoken a bit in front of the crowd. I believe that makes him officially the youngest person to speak at a Skeptics in the Pub. (Our SiTP events aren't held at an actual pub. I live in Oklahoma, so there aren't really such things as English pubs. Ours are held at a restaurant called Picasso Cafe in Oklahoma City) He also has a segment on the upcoming podcast called "5 minutes with Collin". He also encourages me to continue fighting the good fight, and actually reminds me to keep asking questions.

I hope that this demonstrates that Oklahoma doesn't have just the stereotypical gun toting, tobacco chewing, bible thumping, right wing rednecks.
The skeptical community here in the land of crazy is actually surprisingly large and active. Many folks have been doing what we would now call skeptical activism for years. There are many very active critical thinkers that manage to combine the values of skepticism and the typical Oklahoma traits of compassion, helping one another, and alcohol. I mean good natured fun. Yes, we are a slightly unique breed of skeptic in Oklahoma, but we do our damndest to help make the world a better place for everyone. I really want everyone that reads this blog to look into what Bryan, Caleb, Damion, and Chas have been doing, follow them on the various social media, buy, or at least borrow their books, and give them some love.

Monday, November 9, 2015

If vaccines are so safe, why fear the willingly unvaccinated?

Okay folks, as seems to be the norm lately, this is going to be based on a Facebook meme that's been making the rounds, showing up in my feed several times a day, and royally pissing me off. This time I held off on making any comments, at least on-line. Especially after I read the comments. I am going to try and paint a picture for you. Imagine, there are 2 women, one wearing a red dress and pointing at the other, who seems mildly surprised. In the upper 1/3 of the image it says "Why would my unvaccinated kids be a threat to your vaccinated kids, if you are so sure vaccines work?" In the bottom 1/3 it says "NaturalNews" Yep. Fucking NaturalNews being used as a source of information to prove that vaccines don't really work. Or at least confirming certain peoples biases. Great. Bloody, flamin' great. I was very tempted to try and clarify that they do work, and have been shown to be effective, but I opted to read the comments first. Then I closed Facebook, got up, and contemplated slamming my head into a tree. Unfortunately, these sorts of sentiments aren't uncommon, though they aren't exactly rare either. The anti-vaccine movement has actually existed since Jenner gave the first smallpox vaccine, so roughly 219 years ago, as of 2015. Or you can go farther back to a process called variolation. There is a fascinating website called "History of vaccines" with an amazing timeline that you can see here. Because the history of vaccines is surprisingly long and detailed, and there is no way I could do it justice, I am not going to really get into it much. However, I am going to talk about how, much like the zombies from "The Walking Dead", we should fear the willingly unvaccinated.


Lets start with a definition, shall we? A vaccine is, according to, :  any preparation used as a preventive inoculation to confer immunity against a specific disease, usually employing an innocuous form of the disease agent, as killed or weakened bacteria or viruses, to stimulate antibody production.

There are also 2 main types of vaccines. The first is called a "Live Attenuated" vaccine. These are created by modifying a living virus into a form that is no longer as virulent. The second form is called an "Inactivated" vaccine. These are created by killing the virus, either by formaldehyde or heat. In either case, the main purpose of a vaccine is to cause a reaction in the body's immune system similar to the actual disease. This causes the creation of antibodies that will recognize the virus in the future and attack it. Neither type of vaccine will have any sort of an effect on bacteria. There are vaccines for most disease causing viruses, with a few notable exceptions. Ebola is one that has received a lot of attention in the past year, though they are fast tracking at least 1 viable vaccine. AIDS, of course, is another, though there is hope that one may developed soon. Vaccines have played an enormous role in not only protecting people from some pretty serious illnesses, but in expanding our life expectancy, reducing infant mortality, and improving our overall quality of life.

A brief look at the anti-vaccer arguments:
Lets take a quick look at some of the arguments that the anti-vaccination crowd often uses as their reasoning for what they believe.
A major talking point for the anti-vaccination crowd are the ingredients in vaccines, namely the MMR (Mumps, Measles, and Rubella). You will often hear them complain about the toxic materials in the shots such as formaldehyde, mercury, the virus itself, and Thimerosal ( a type of mercury). Funny thing is, in the MMR vaccine, it has never had Thimerosal. As a matter of fact, very few vaccines do, or ever have. The FDA has an interesting page on Thimerosal in vaccines, which you can look at here. I really recommend looking at it, it's pretty interesting, and it will give you some facts and figures on various vaccines. The reason that Thimerosal and mercury are the major issues is due to the Wakefield study, which claimed there was a link between autism and vaccinations. This line of thinking has been disproven dozens of times in independent studies, the paper retracted, Wakefield has lost his license to practice medicine because of how he performed the study and basically lying about the results. Yet many people will still claim it's the truth because it confirms their personally held beliefs.
Another argument that you might hear is "Too many, too soon".(I have also seen 2 many 2 soon and two many two soon.) The thinking behind this is that children today are getting too many vaccinations, which in turn leads to a toxic buildup of dangerous chemicals. Once again, wrong. The vaccination schedule is carefully considered by medical professionals before being recommended. I seriously doubt that they aren't going to hold their kids to the same schedule as everyone else. If they thought it was dangerous, they would recommend against it. Simple as that.
And yet another argument is that the diseases are mild, and nothing to be concerned about. This is not only wrong, but dangerous thinking. Measles, Mumps, and Rubella are all 3 dangerous diseases that can easily lead to multiple problems, including encephalitis, miscarriages, sterility in men, and even death. Ironically, Rubella infections while pregnant, may actually be responsible for some cases of autism. Much of this information, I found on the AntiAntiVax site, which has links to their sources. Anecdotally, I will also say that, as someone that has had the measles, I do not want to see anyone suffer through that.
Another oft repeated bit of drivel is that it wasn't vaccinations that reduced or eradicated diseases, it was sanitation. While it's true that sanitation has played a very important role in preventing or limiting the spread of various diseases, it is a minor player when compared to the effect that vaccinations have had. There are areas of the world where sanitation is limited, if not non-existent, and yet diseases are relatively kept in check by vaccinations. There have been multiple cases where the sanitation was adequate, and yet disease outbreaks kept happening. For an example of this, look up Typhoid Mary.A quick synopsis is: Typhoid Mary was a cook for several wealthy families. Generally speaking, the wealthy didn't suffer from many of the more communicable diseases. However, the people that Mary worked for kept catching Typhoid Fever. Turns out she was a carrier for the disease.
There are other arguments that crop up, such as "It's against God's will", and "They aren't natural" or "Diseases are a part of nature", and "They cause cancer" and so on. The ones I mentioned above are the primary Big Four that you will probably hear most often.

Why to fear the willingly unvaccinated
There are a few reasons why you should fear the unvaccinated. It's not because you think that unvaccinated kids might get your vaccinated kid sick. Nor is it because you have any doubts about the efficacy of vaccinations. These are horrible misrepresentations of the true reasons that people should, at the very least, be wary of the willingly unvaccinated. The first one is because of the people that are unable to be vaccinated. By this, I mean folks that are already immunocompromised, are allergic to an ingredient in the vaccine, or are too young to receive the vaccine. These people are at the greatest risk of contracting an illness. The very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised, are also at the greatest risk of dying from any of the vaccine preventable illnesses. All it takes is 1 person that is shedding a virus at a daycare to do some serious damage. There are also entire communities, such as the Amish, that could be wiped out by some of these diseases because, for the most part, they aren't vaccinated either. Their main form of protection is their isolation from society at large. I don't really approve of religious exemptions from vaccinations, but as a single person, there isn't much I can do.
A secondary reason to avoid the anti-vaccination crowd is that vaccines do on occasion fail. The failure rate for the MMR vaccine is roughly 2-5%. It's hard to get an exact figure because you don't know it failed until you're exposed and catch the illness. The CDC has some interesting information and figures here. Another reason that they might fail is because the target virus may have mutated or altered in an unforeseen way, such as the flu. While the vaccination may not completely stop you from catching the disease, it can still help mitigate the effects and make it less transmissible to other people. Vaccines may also fail if they are improperly made, if the virus is already established in the bodies cells, and on occasion the maternal antibodies will interfere with the vaccination. Also, there is a slight chance that the vaccine may have become denatured either during storage, or during administration. Even given the reasons a vaccine might fail, the odds are still in your favor if you go ahead and get it.
Finally, there are a couple of little things called The Germ Theory of Disease and Fomite Transmission! As you should hopefully know, the germ theory explains that diseases are caused by microorganisms. Fomite transmission is where a disease is transferred by contaminated equipment, clothing, or any other inanimate object. Anyone, vaccinated or not, can accidentally carry a virus from one location to another. That's one of the things that makes the flu such a bitch for the medical community to try and keep it under control. That, and the fact it changes faster than a politician during an election year. While most viruses can be transferred from location to location, each type has a different habitat in the human body. Some will live in mucus, other in the saliva, and yet others in various bodily fluids. They also have differing amounts of time that they can survive outside of the host body, ranging from mere minutes to years. As you can probably imagine, the unvaccinated crowd will probably have a higher virus load on their clothing and skin, which means that they will have a higher chance of infecting people that they come into contact with.

I could have easily gone into the increase in deaths from vaccine preventable illnesses, the idea of community (or herd) immunity, talk about the diseases eliminated by vaccines (rinderpest and smallpox and almost polio), the problems with religious and personal belief exemptions to vaccinations, or even discuss the Wakefield study and why it was found to be full of errors and misrepresentations. Those have all been done repeatedly by folks that are much more intelligent and better writers than I could ever hope to be. Instead, I've opted to be blunt and say simply fear people that will willingly avoid getting themselves and their children vaccinated. And pity them for their overwhelming fear and mistrust.