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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Polly wants a psychic reading?

Yep, I fell off the wagon again. I know it's been a bit since the last post, and I'm going to promise no more promises about keep a regular publishing schedule. My life is currently too chaotic for such promises, and I really hate breaking my word. So, I will put out new material as often as I can.

Today, I'm wanting to discuss a really niche area of pseudoscience that manages to combine a lot of New Age ideas with the medium and spiritualism. And they use the same tactics that most psychics and mediums use combined with the love most people have for their pets. Yep, that's right.

Animal Communicators

Animal communicators are a special breed of Woo peddlers. These are people that claim they are able to talk to animals, sort of like Dr. Doolittle. They "help" find missing animals, "treat" illnesses, offer counseling and speak to the dead, much like psychics and mediums. I'm going to speak in generalities, and not get too in depth. Every communicator is different, and they all have their own twists on what they do.

Animal communicators tend to use a lot of the same tactics as the psychic crowd, such as cold reading, hot reading, blatant information gathering, and so on. Quite a few also advertise themselves as animal psychics. Most of the time, these people will visit the owner in the owners house. They can normally gain a lot of information just by being there. The sort of person that would utilize an animal communicator is the same type that will have many pictures of their pets on the wall, on tables, etc. Just by looking at the pictures, the A.C. gain get a rough idea of how long they've had the animal, activities they do with it, and places that the animal has been. They will begin to make a series of broad statements about the animal, in the hopes of narrowing down the field until they can piece together a story. These are decent multipurpose methods that work in a variety of circumstances. Combine the "reading" with the fact that people are more apt to remember the hits and forget the misses, and you have a fairly convincing psychic event.

Personal note: I am currently writing another entry on psychics, so a lot of the tricks of the trade will be discussed more thoroughly in that post.

Lost Animals:
Often, Animal Communicators will be hired to help find a lost animal. People that are desperate to find a lost pet are often frustrated that the police or animal welfare don't seem to be doing much for their case. Unfortunately, these groups are often under staffed and have so many more critical calls that lost animals are often disregarded. So, they turn to anyone they think can help. In comes the Animal Communicator. Much like psychics that claim they help the police to find lost and missing people, the A.C. will make some broad statements that could apply to a lot of animals. However, they do have an advantage in this line of work, especially if they are actually familiar with animal behavior. Unlike most people, animals are creatures of instinct and habit. Some of the most common reasons an animal runs off is due to a female in heat nearby, a smaller animal running by, an unfamiliar animal in the area, a change in the owners habits, or even moving to a new location. Also, many animals are scared by loud noises, so the Fourth of July, New Years Eve, or any other holiday involving fireworks can spook them. So can a particularly loud thunderstorm. The A.C. will then extrapolate possible locations the animal might have gone, and make relatively vague references to them. If the customers are able to find the animal, then it's a win. If they can't, it's still a win for the A.C. because they can simply say the animal has moved on, found a new family, or has left their area of influence.

Dead Animals:
Much like psychics that deal with humans only, some of the A.C.s are basically emotional vampires. A person that has lost a beloved pet will go to a pet psychic for closure. They will often go to the owners house. Like I said earlier, the type of person that would seek out this type of service will often have a lot of pictures of them and their pet. The A.C. can use the images, and any other information they can glean from the owner to weave into a very pleasing narrative about heaven, a rainbow bridge, and any other platitudes that will make the customer happy. Once again, they operate much like other psychics, except they are talking to Fluffy instead of Aunt Frannie.

Sick Animals or Poor Behavior:
Often, when animals are ill, they will have behavior changes. If an A.C. is consulted, they will often come to the home and perform a reading on the animal, or they'll offer to do one over the phone. Or you can bring them a picture or something that belongs to the animal. They often start with something along the lines of "Spot is unhappy" Then, using many of the different cold reading tricks, they will then proceed to diagnose the animal. They may say that something doesn't feel right, or that the animal is acting out because of something the owner has or hasn't done. They may prescribe taking the animal to a vet, or an alt med practitioner. They may also suggest changing the furniture around, taking the animal for walks, changing the diet, or other common fixes for behavior problems. Once again, if it works, then it's a win. If it doesn't, then the communicator will invent another problem. Or say that they have fixed the problem, just on a spiritual level, or some other unfalsifiable claim. They also take advantage of the Clever Hans Effect and a form of the Placebo Effect. The Clever Hans Effect is where the animal is reacting to cues that the owner is unaware they are making. I have written more on this in my Homeopathy and the Hound post. The form of the Placebo Effect is where the owners either believe that the animal is feeling or acting better, or they feel better for trying to help. Either way, they are neglecting the fact that illness and behaviors wax and wane. So, after a visit from one of these animal psychics, the problem may naturally improve, at least for a while.

Other Aspects:
There are a lot of similarities between the various animal communicators and psychics. During the course of the reading, many of them will describe what the animals "voice" sounds like, i.e. gruff, high pitched, elegant, deep, and so on. They may also describe the animal as having an accent. They also charge quite a bit for their services. I have seen prices ranging from $100-$1200 for a single appointment. They also very rarely say anything negative. There is never "Tiger says it's hot and he's being bitten by dogs" or "Rex is acting up because he really doesn't like you" or a discussion of the owners personal habits.They are always able to spin a relatively happy tale for the customer. There really isn't a lot of difference between animal communicators and other psychics. The only major difference is that the subject of the reading can't say whether they are correct or not.

There is absolutely no evidence that there is any form of psychic abilities, so it is very doubtful that these people are capable of performing the feats that they are claiming. There may be people that think they can hear animals speaking to them and choose to try and help the animals. They more than likely have a psychological issue, rather than a psychic ability. Most people that claim they can speak to animals are just exploiting a very unique market to make some money. I personally feel that anyone that claims to be able to communicate with your animals, living or dead, is just a fraud out to make a buck.

Until next time, Be Good, Be Skeptical, and Be sure to remember the milk.

The Skeptical Okie

Monday, September 14, 2015

Letting the other side of reality talk. (Opinion)

Before you get too far into this post, I'm going to warn you ahead of time that it is largely my opinion on the matter, and in no way reflects anyone else's views. I have started to put (Opinion) in the titles if the post is in fact an opinion piece and contains very little research. This is so that people that read my posts for the research I put into it don't feel cheated when reading an opinion piece, and the maybe 1 person that reads these because they are interested in my thoughts.

I have been hearing the murmurs about giving both sides of an issue equal time and press, so that people can have a chance to make an informed decision. (I largely feel that the increased pressure for equal time is due to the up coming presidential race debacle)  In some issues, I completely agree. Give all the candidates equal time to make the promises they know they can't keep. Let companies have equal amounts of commercial time to make their claims about how their products can improve your life. This is fine. This is republican democracy and capitalism at work.

When it comes to the science vs pseudoscience arena however, I don't think that the quacks, hucksters, and other bullshitters should have an equal amount of time to try and convince people that their particular flavor of pseudoscience works. Granted, I do think that it is important to listen to the believers to try and learn how and why they think that crystal healing, reiki, or homeopathy works. I also know that it is important to review and check anyone's evidence, both scientists and pseudoscientists. But to give a homeopath, or any other promoter of pseudoscience an equal, or greater amount of exposure is a detriment to society, as well as being intellectually dishonest.

 For decades, these alternative treatments, quantum whatevers, and ancient or all natural products have often been shown to be at least less effective than actual medicines and treatments, if not more dangerous, especially when mixed with actual medicine. Not just experimentally, but in actual instances outside of the lab. Unfortunately,  you often hear about someone forgoing medical treatment and trying some type of alternative medicine, and paying the price, not just financially, but with their health, and sometimes their life. And yet, the stories that make it into the media outlets are the "miracle cures" and "mysterious recoveries" that "have doctors baffled". BULLSHIT! The only doctors that might be baffled by these occurrences are the people that are promoting this crap, and their bafflement comes from the fact that it looks like their treatment worked. This is a tactic often used in the media, as well as with the alt med crowd. It makes the article more interesting, and casts doubt on the entire medical establishment. However, you will never hear them admit that sometimes diseases will spontaneously go into remission, regardless of the type of treatment that the patient was receiving. You also never see them talking to actual medical experts to find out if they are actually baffled or if it's just a bit of media hyperbole.

There are websites, magazines, and television shows that seem to go out of their way to not just denigrate science and actual medicine, but to make people frightened of it. Which in turn drives up sales of their products. I am not saying that every single person that promotes some form of pseudoscience is just doing it for the money. There are a few that actually believe that they are helping people by offering alternatives, though these are far and few between. Most of them have their own things to sell and view everyone else as competition. They will even invent problems that don't actually exist in order to create a demand for something no one thought they needed. All that they manage to do is cause people to believe that scientists have no idea what they are doing, or that they are hiding something. Of course the fact that actual science can be revised or proven wrong while pseudoscience rarely changes adds to that, and the snake oil promoters use that fact also, which in turn gets them more publicity.

Basically, what I have been trying to say through my little rant here is that the pseudoscientists should never be given equal representation to scientists, especially in the media. All this does is muddy what may already be complicated issues, and it gives them a legitimacy that they neither have, nor deserve. If there is anyone associated with the media that reads this, I do have a couple of suggestions. The first is give both sides time equal to the amount of reliable evidence. Not anecdotal, not customer testimonials, not arguments from antiquity or the naturalistic fallacy, or arguments from popularity. Whoever has the most reliably reproducible results from actual testing should get the lions share of media time. I sure as hell don't mean all the "clinically tested" claims that you often see on a variety of WOO based products either. All that means is that they were tested, possibly in-house, and it doesn't say anything about the efficacy of the item. A second suggestion is, if you do a story on some form of pseudoscience, and are looking for balance, don't just give the expert or the skeptic a 5 second sound bite at the end. This doesn't help anything, because people have already heard what they want to, and have stopped paying attention.(I'm looking at you History Channel, Animal Planet, and Dr. Oz!) You can also start with a disclaimer saying that the following story or statements has yet to be scientifically verified.

With that being said, I would also like to say that it important as a critical thinker, science advocate, skeptic, rationalist, or however else you would like to be labeled, or have labeled yourself, to actually listen to the believers of pseudoscience. This can help you understand why they believe what they do, and possibly give you a way to show them other evidence for a more rational explanation. Not to humiliate or belittle them, but to show them that there are other possibilities that are much more likely. I am also not saying that the pseudoscience crowd can't express their opinions and views. They just need to be aware that when they do, there will be those that demand evidence and have the knowledge and ability to refute their claims.

Monday, September 7, 2015

UFO's for the beginning skeptic

First off, to the loyal readers, sorry for falling off the wagon for a while. I know I said that I was going to try and publish posts more often and regularly, but unfortunately, once again, life got in the way. Partly due to work, partly personal life with a new baby. So, enough about me and on to what you're here for.

Today's topic is another one I've wanted to write about for a while.UFO's are not something I talk about often. Not because I'm not interested, believe me, I am. I watch almost all of the ancient alien, UFO conspiracy shows on T.V., and I work with a few people that believe aliens have visited (not the same aliens that the Republicans are bitching about). The reason I don't often discuss them is because it's rather hard to figure out a starting point. Do I start, much like the Ancient Alien crowd, with cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Indian Vedas? Or do I start with Barney and Betty Hill in 1961? Or perhaps Roswell in 1947? I think I should start with describing a UFO.

To start, UFO simply stands for Unidentified Flying Object. There are an incredible variety of phenomenon that have received the title UFO. Strange lights in the sky, odd objects that are caught on video, strange noises, airborne objects that aren't readily identified, and on and on. Most people in the UFO believers camp think that all of these are, in some form, controlled by an alien intelligence. There are a few that will make the claim that these objects are from the future and being driven by humans. I will grant that there are actually UFO's in that there are occasionally flying objects that are unidentified. The likelihood that these are some sort of extraterrestrial craft is minimal.

Before I get any farther, I am going to say now that I am not going to discuss any specific UFO cases in great detail in this post. If there is a particular case you'd like me to take a look at, email me at and give me the details.

*Note on the types: There are a lot of descriptions of UFO's. Some of these are singularly unique, while there might be many sightings that the descriptions are very similar. I am going to attempt to group them, much like my cryptids post, into similar descriptions. Part of the problem with this is that some may fit into several categories while some may not fit into any category very well. I am also going to try and include a more naturalistic explanation for these phenomenon in the category, instead of doing an overall conclusion.

These are quite likely the most common of sightings. These are normally sudden lights, usually seen at night, that reportedly act in an odd manner. They might change directions erratically or suddenly, They may also appear to accelerate, raise, lower, stop, hover, flicker, waver, or disappear altogether. The colors can vary, though white, yellow and blue seem to be the most popular.  There are occasions of odd lights being reported during the day as well, though those are much rarer.There are several different things that may cause these phenomena. One possible cause your standard run of the mill aircraft. All aircraft have multiple lights on their wings and under-carriages, as well as the tail. If you're looking at them at a slightly odd angle, you may only see one or two. If the plane banks or turns, it can give the appearance that the lights are moving at speeds much faster than what a "normal" aircraft can achieve. Plus, as the plane continues to bank, rise, or fall, the lights may suddenly disappear as they are hidden by the planes body. Basically, it's an optical illusion. Another possible cause are flares or fireworks. Some are designed to suddenly ignite after a certain amount of time, and then just disappear, or they could be faulty and not work properly. Another possible cause, which I have recently learned about, is temperature inversion, also known as Fata Morgana, which is basically a mirage. And you can never forget that the sighting may be a trick or a hoax.

There are a lot of reports that seem to make a mention of a "cigar shaped craft". These seem to apply to any sort of tubular or cylindrical shapes objects. Like many sightings of strange objects or creatures, the colors, sizes, and all other pertinent details vary widely. Some of these only seen when someone is reviewing previously shot film. Others are seen during the day, in the open, and by groups. These can be harder to determine their actual cause. Once again, they may be some form of aircraft, seen at an odd angle or elevation. They may be the result of someone perpetuating a hoax. They could be a model rocket or airplane being flown by a hobbyist. The ones that are only seen by carefully reviewing the film are most likely insects. (I have never seen an example of these during the winter)  Experimental aircraft also could be a likely explanation. They could also be birds that the witness is unfamiliar with. Another possible explanation are balloons. You can have a balloon made into nearly any shape or size. These more naturalistic explanations don't explain all the sightings, and some are legitimately unknown.

These have become more common in recent history. They are often described as being large, black, and moving in a manner that is not possible for any known aircraft. These are very interesting to me, as I can only come up with a few possible explanations. The first one that comes to mind is misidentifying known aircraft, such as the flying wing. Once again, experimental aircraft are possible, as are gliders and hang gliders. Drones, model airplanes, other types of toys (yes, those are toys. Just really expensive toys) are entirely probable. And much like any other type of sighting, hallucinations are always a possibility.

Of course, I can't leave out the classic "flying saucer" type of UFO sighting. These are the classic type of craft like you would see in a 50's or 60's science fiction movie. They sort of look like an inverted bowl on top of a plate. The term was coined in 1947 by Kenneth Arnold. You will rarely hear a report of an actual flying saucer these days. Most of the original sightings were most likely hoaxes, either for fun or profit. There is some variation is the details of the crafts, but all in all, they have the same basic plan. Basically, think of Marvin the Martians ship from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. These are pretty simple to build, and still fairly easy to produce flying saucer images and video.

I will admit that I have not covered every type of UFO sighting and reported vehicle. There is just way to many minute variations and alterations to include everything. As well, as interesting as the topic is, the likelihood that our small blue dot of a planet is being visited by highly advanced beings is so improbable that it is hard to take any of this seriously. Trying to research UFO's and UFO sightings sends you down so many rabbit holes that piecing together any sort of coherent dialogue requires much more time than I am able to afford to it.

Things to consider:
There are several factors to keep in mind when hearing about, or reading about UFO reports. You will often hear witnesses say that the objects do things that no known aircraft can. One problem with this statement is that modern aircraft can often perform maneuvers that seem unbelievable, and very few people are familiar with every model of aircraft. Not to mention that every government is constantly working on new types of aircraft. Also, there is the problem of mistaken perspective. An airborne object may be farther away than you think it is, as well as larger or smaller. In the air, there are very few objects that can give you a dependable frame of reference for the size. As well, there is always the chance that someone is simply faking either the object or the report, possibly for fun, or to make money and garner attention. Of course, they could also be a normal object in a strange or unexpected context. You will also hear many members of the UFO believer community say that the witness is a pilot, police officer, doctor, teacher, or some other pillar of society. They will say that these people, especially military, police, and pilots are trained to observe things. While that may be true, they are still human (unless the illuminati have replaced them all with robots or lizard people), and humans are not infallible. Even I made a mistake once :).Many of these witnesses may be in a heightened state of stress, which in turn can cause them to hallucinate or misidentify things around them. Not to say that they are lying, but that they are misremembering or misinterpreting information. And of course, there is always the chance that every once in a great while, there is an actual alien intelligence piloting one of the objects that have been seen. But before you conclude that you have actually seen ALF flying by on his way back to Melmac, remember that you have to disprove the more naturalistic probabilities first.

If you have a question, comment, or request, you can leave a comment here. Please do, I'd like some internet company. Until next time, Be Good, Be Skeptical, and Be sure to set your clocks back an hour.

the Skeptical Okie.