Category Archives: How we know

James McCormick and the ADE 651 Bomb Detector: Don’t Think It Can’t Happen Here

This one hits close to home, mostly for reasons unrelated to my geographic location.  In fact, the sad and frustrating story takes place on the other side of the world, although I do see the same dangerous attitudes in the course of doing my own job far too often.

A little background on me, first.  I work in the field of underground detection, using electromagnetic instruments to locate subsurface utilities and other items of possible interest, such as storage tanks or building foundations, in support of future remediation or construction projects.  The principles behind these devices have been understood for hundreds of years and they pass trials every time an excavation is done to remove an identified gasoline tank or to repair a traced utility.  Most of the machines rely on the conductivity of the metallic objects to carry a signal, although the oft-touted ground penetrating radar (GPR) is also useful in finding non-metallic targets. The instruments unfortunately have unavoidable detection limits, as the resistance of the ground works to attenuate the signals.

So we laugh when we receive flyers for impossible products that claim to detect any material at preposterous depths, with no explanation of how such a miracle is performed.  It’s not so funny when similar “devices” are used in a FUCKING WAR ZONE to detect BOMBS at security checkpoints.  Such was the ADE 651, a plastic handgrip with a swiveling antenna and no electronics beyond a $20 novelty golf ball finder, that was sold to the Iraqi army by the despicable James McCormick for as much as $40,000 apiece.  McCormick was sentenced by a British court to 10 years in prison on fraud charges earlier this month, and at least 7 million pounds (almost 10 million dollars) of his over 75 million dollar fortune will be distributed to victims and surviving relatives of those killed by bombs that slipped by.  Hollow solace, to be sure, especially to the “hundreds and thousands” of Iraqi civilians who also perished.

The ADE 651 was supposedly powered by the user’s “static electricity,” and could detect nearly anything, including explosives, drugs and money, from thousands of feet away, simply by inserting the appropriate “programmed substance detection card” that could “tune in” to the particular material’s “frequency,” whatever that means.  Science-y sounding nonsense that tries to move something into the realm of “plausible” from “too good to be true.”  The ADE 651 doesn’t work.  It can’t work, unless they also change the laws of physics as they function.  Yet, as the Wall Street Journal notes, the Iraqi military still employs them!  And they’re not the only ones!  How can anyone continue to believe in their efficacy?

Does this look like a device that can locate ANYTHING?  From the BBC

Benjamin Radford offers some explanations.  Chief among them perhaps is that after spending a small fortune on the props, the officials no doubt want them to work.  They’re literally and figuratively invested in their performance.  It’s easy to say, “well, we haven’t had many bombings since we got it” when there aren’t many bombs to begin with, and when something does evade detection?  “Hey, no system’s perfect.”  Or the guy wasn’t using it right.  Operator error.  But man, you find one bomb (which can sure happen if you search enough people), and that confirmation bias kicks in, assuring you that the plastic stick can somehow do magic.

But if it doesn’t work, how were the “positive readings” even obtained?  The so-called antenna is mounted loosely and can easily swing when prompted, consciously or unconsciously.  The same phenomenon driving the spooky Ouija board, the ideomotor efffect, is likely to blame.  It’s been shown that a person’s expectations can subconsciously influence small, almost unnoticeable motions, in favor of what you want to find.  And I’ve seen it in person.  Many times, baselessly confident guys with “witching sticks, ” essentially two bent metal rods, have gone over what I’ve done and “confirmed” it when the pins pivot together.  “Yep, there it is!”  Funny how they’ve never tried that before I put paint on the ground for them to see.  Not once.

Well, except for when similar dowsers are EMPLOYED by the TOWN to mark utilities.  I’ve seen that, too.  Several years ago I was tasked with investigating multiple gas stations in a New Jersey city, and found that the publicly-funded water service markouts were often wildly inaccurate, sometimes not even entering the site building on the same side as depicted.  I offhandedly mentioned this to another public locator, and he confirmed the worst.  Tax dollars spent on the easily disproven and, more importantly, huge potential for damage and even loss of life fostered.

Image proudly promoted on  Would you trust your life to these?


We’re good at fooling ourselves when we want something to be true, and there are terrible people who leap at the chance to take advantage of that.  James McCormick got 10 years in jail, but how is that enough when so many have died at his hands?  People often ask “what’s the harm” in believing unsubstantiated or improbable claims.  I can’t imagine a starker example.

And as unlikely as it may seem, such things can hit close to home.  The dowsers I encounter are completely convinced that their “methods” work, and no amount of reason or recounting of failed tests will convince them.  They’ve seen it, so they know!  We must all remain eternally vigilant in our own ways to keep crazy from endangering us and others.

Special thanks to Sharon Hill and Doubtful News for continuing to hound this story while it simmered in the background

Atlantis discovered! What, again?!

Holy crap, did you hear the news on Tuesday?  Atlantis, the largely apocryphal, long-lost sunken island first described in Plato’s dialogues (i.e. “stories”) as the doomed home of a highly advanced civilization circa 10,000 BC, has finally been discovered!  Off the coast of Brazil!  That’s not anywhere near Greece, so Plato couldn’t have possibly known about it, but hey!  It seems that two years ago a team of Brazilian scientists dredged up some granite about 900 miles off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, which got them giddy, and now they’ve seen some bad-ass formations in the same place while tooling around in a submersible with their Japanese colleagues.  No artifacts, just rocks.  They think it’s remnants from when Africa and South America split apart 100 million years ago!  And this sounds like the home of a thriving human society… how?

Sounds more like just a rogue piece of South American continental crust.  Many islands, like Hawaii and Iceland, are basaltic in composition, as minerals in oceanic crust are denser and made up of elements like iron and magnesium, whereas the less dense continental crust (which rises higher partly for that reason) is granitic, consisting of elements such as oxygen and silicon.  Some larger islands like Greenland are granitic, as they’re just part of the continental shelf (the extended, lower elevation perimeter of a continent) that hasn’t been submerged.

Either way, they don’t sink!  Islands don’t just sit there and float around the seven seas, like we once thought the continents pushed through oceanic crust as they moved, as in early continental drift proposals.  A strange idea, akin to pushing a piece of paper through a wall, it was replaced in the 20th century by plate tectonics, that instead has both kinds of crust anchored to massive lithospheric plates that are pushed and pulled across the Earth’s surface by underlying differences in temperature.  The edges of some plates are actually sucked into the Earth at subduction zones, like where the Pacific Plate plunges below the South American Plate, giving rise in a roundabout way to the Andes Mountains.  That’s one way to get rid of a landmass, but you sure won’t find any remnants, and it’ll take a good goddamn long time.  The Pacific Plate, to continue the example, currently moves at a rate of about 3 inches per year.  Not exactly “a single day and night,” as Plato recounted.

Erosion can grind a peak down to size; but again, good goddamn long time.  Although if it’s rising faster than the erosion rate, like Mount Everest is, your sinking hypothesis is sunk.  Hawaii too keeps growing, thanks to its active volcanic origin.  Landslides can chip away at the sides, but that still won’t unmoor an island.  A far away landslide could cause a tsunami to wash away what’s on the surface, but one event, even such a powerful one,  won’t smooth a landmass down to sea level.  And if sea level itself rose to conceal something, my God, we’d fricking notice it everywhere!  Not only would there be historical records, but we could read it in the marine rock deposits left behind.


So if Atlantis is based on a probably fictional story the account of which bears no resemblance to this discovery, where did all these weird websites get their ideas?  How does someplace called “DVICE” go from this:

real atlantis

to this?

fake atlantis


“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks.”

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at:

“This could be the Brazilian Atlantis. We are almost certain but we must bolster our hypothesis. We will have final (scientific) recognition this year when we conduct drilling in the area to retrieve more samples of these rocks,” the news website quoted Ventura as saying.Read more at:

In a much less reported following statement, Geology Service of Brazil director Roberto Ventura Santos continued, “We speak of Atlantis more in terms of symbolism.  Obviously, we don’t expect to find a lost city in the middle of the Atlantic.”

Come on.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  From Mauritia to the “Bimini Road” to the plains of Spain (at least that’s closer), media outlets desperate for eyeballs will use any chance to turn heads with woo-woo.  These geologists played into it for reasons that aren’t totally clear.  More exposure?  Funding?  To see something more colorful when they Google themselves?  Whatever the motivation, it’s kind of messed up and unsettling that a group of scientists would willingly court crazy to get people’s attention.  It’s not like there isn’t enough of it out there already without the good guys throwing them another bone to chew apart and spew back.

A Neophyte Visits NECSS

With an extra Monday to play with this month, I’ve decided to do two separate “Revisit” posts.  The usual  look back will happen on the 29th.  This entry focuses on recounting a real life, three dimensional event, as I attended the 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in Manhattan on April 6th.  NECSS is co-promoted by the New England Skeptical Society, founded in 1996, and the New York City Skeptics, a group not much older than the conference itself.  The first NECSS took place in 2009 and boasted 400 attendees, a number that has only grown, if my shaky estimation skills can be trusted.  While the lectures span an entire weekend, 2013 was the second year in a row that I could only make the Saturday session, as other social engagements unfortunately overlapped.  I missed the Sunday in 2012 because… well, I had only found out about the damn thing shortly before it was to occur and I had no idea what I was getting into.  That and I’d have been in the doghouse had I completely blown my girlfriend off to dork out for two days straight.

When that day concluded last year, I was kind of shaken.  The legendary conjurer and debunker of flim-flam, James “The Amazing” Randi had given the final talk of the afternoon, concerning his unequivocal expose of despicable televangelist Peter Popoff, a tale recounted in Randi’s famous tome The Faith Healers.  Tears welled in his eyes as he told the stories of disabled children who, looking to be made well by his divine guidance, left Popoff’s revivals no healthier (but more destitute), as the money-hungry swindlers cackled over the radio connections they used to pump the crowd for seemingly impossible to attain information about their ailments.  I too became misty, but the sadness turned to revulsion when Randi revealed that despite his irrefutable recordings of Popoff and his crew hoaxing his revelatory, “God given ability,” the charlatan was experiencing an inexplicable resurgence in popularity.  Randi implored that we all band together to combat such debilitating deceit, and I was inspired to agree.  But what could I do?  I carried that question with me all year, and into the 2013 edition of NECSS.


The event’s activities had expanded since 2012 to include a series of workshops the day before the conference proper.  The first was led by Julia Galef, still a member of the New York City Skeptics board of directors in addition to her position as President of the San Francisco based Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), who offered a helpful presentation on her work with the Center and their goals.  She gave several suggestions on how to keep your reason about you during a discussion, such as dissociating yourself from your argument so as to not react defensively, and she further explained how CFAR teaches these skills through seminars.  When Julia finished, I wanted to ask what kind of people signed up for these sessions, but at least two others beat me to the punch, amidst many more thoughtful queries.  I guess we’re a boisterous bunch.  The answer was not unexpected; that the participants were usually leaning toward those tendencies already.  While it’s nice to get us all on the same page and sharpen our own skills, I think we all left considering how to bring in the people who could most benefit from those techniques.

NECSS officially began on Saturday morning with a presentation by physicist Leonard Mlodinow related to his most recent book, Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.  Mlodinow’s prior popular works include a joint venture with Stephen Hawking, and another with Deepak Chopra of all people, whom Leonard playfully apologized to while looking skyward when experiencing technical difficulties with his talk.  My personal highlight here was the playing of the infamous Led Zeppelin SATANIC BACKWARD SPEAK~!  I had never actually heard it, so it just sounded like gibberish until the “lyrics” that some nutbar pulled out of the aether were shown alongside the sounds.  Suddenly, I couldn’t NOT hear them!  We’re designed to find patterns, not ignore them!  Again, another helpful lesson that drives home how fallible we all are, partly due to our biology, but one still likely destined to not reach beyond the already sympathetic audience.

During the break for lunch, I perused tables set up outside the auditorium that were helmed by groups such as the Center for Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.  There seemed to be at least twice as many in 2012.  Maybe it was a smaller room then.  More psychological effects.  I spoke to the kind gentleman at the New York City Skeptics table and asked what sort of things the organization was involved in.  He told me of lectures and meet-ups of fellow skeptics (often involving alcohol).  I’m a fan of the creature myself, so that’s cool, but not exactly what I was looking for.  “Do you guys do any kind of community outreach?”  I think he was unsure of what I wanted him to say.  I’m unsure of what I expected.  Steven Novella, neurologist and prime mover of the wildly popular and hilarious Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, was also asking the poor guy if anyone had found out the Wi-Fi password yet.  More technical problems.  Not wanting to distract him from his actual work, and realizing that we had probably reached an impasse anyway, I ceased to pursue the issue.

It seemed to me the most important points were raised in a panel discussion that included Michael Shermer, Editor-In-Chief of Skeptic Magazine, Mariette DiChristina, who holds a similar position at Scientific American, and Cat Bohannan, who studies how narrative influences cognition at Columbia University.  Led by the “Science Babe,” Deborah Berebichez, the group discussed how people tend to (wrongly) be more influenced by stories rather than data, and how the “other side” uses that to great effect while the good guys can sometimes overlook such a utility.  Debbie’s frustration was shared by everyone as she noted how many skeptics struggle to make ends meet while Deepak Chopra rakes in millions (Deepak took a beating this day).  Another member of the panel, Nathalie Molina Niño, suggested abandoning the war metaphors that we “take into battle” with us, to lessen the appearance of confrontation.  We’re all on the same side in wanting to figure out the truth, after all, we just approach it (not “attack” it) from different angles.  Shermer remarked that offering the story of how you yourself came to skepticism can often elicit empathy from suspicious adversaries listeners.  While some think the facts should speak for themselves and almost see such “framing” and storytelling tactics as cheating, I wonder if using the system against itself isn’t the worst idea in the world.


So that’s my story.  My 2013 NECSS experience was even more enjoyable than the previous year’s, and I got a further glimpse at just how hard the volunteers and everyone involved work to make this happen.  It’s clear by the crowd size and the technical problems however that as a group, we skeptically minded folks who ask for evidence of everything are still a niche group (though I guess even the most prestigious academic conferences still experience computer glitches, so maybe that point’s moot).  But the crowds do indeed seem to be growing and everyone’s enthusiasm was undeniable.  I witnessed how brilliant people are doing great things, but left still contemplating just how it is we can reach the folks outside our little circle.  Are these incremental gains enough?  Is there a way to make bigger breakthroughs?  I guess those are questions everyone else has been carrying with them forever, and ones we’ll all likely continue to shoulder for years to come.

“They needed a study for that?!” Common Sense Ideas Are the Ones Most in Need of Testing

Go to the WDTM? Facebook page and take a gander at the cover photo.  There’s a quote (sort of) from Thomas Henry Huxley that states, “Science is simply common sense at its best.”  What he really said is probably closer to “science is nothing but trained and organized common sense.”  A lot of people, scientists in particular, would disagree with that.  Einstein (maybe) said, “Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach eighteen.”  Albert and others might argue that common sense, defined by some as “sound judgment derived from experience rather than study,” is the very thing that science strives to correct, as anecdotes can’t compare to the predictive power of statistics.  Then again, Merriam-Webster calls common sense “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”  A considered conclusion achieved through observation.  Sounds like science to me.  So who’s right?  Are the two ideas compatible or mutually exclusive?  If we already have a common sense idea about something, what’s the point in further studying it?

It’s neat that Huxley, often called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his aggressive defense of natural selection to anyone who would listen (and more importantly, to those who didn’t want to), is mired in this divide, as the theory of evolution itself is a prime example of how common sense can shift.  Before descent was discovered, it was only too obvious that living things have always existed in their current forms.  I mean, have you ever seen a turtle turn into a gopher?  Chickens have baby chickens, right, not baby cows?  Now, even ignoring genetic data, the evidence for evolution seems as plain as the nose on your face.  Or the similarities of animal skeletal structure.  Or the fossil record.  Or antibiotic resistant bacteria.

So it’s of the utmost importance to test everything, even the ideas that seem self-evident on first blush.  Especially those.  Some of the deepest truths of the universe are so violently counter-intuitive it may seem wondrous that we ever arrived at them.  It’s clear from our everyday experience that the Earth is stationary and flat, and that the Sun revolves around us.  You can watch it rise and set, for Christ’s sake!  And the deeper our understanding gets, the less capable our hunter/gatherer neural networks are of truly fathoming reality.  We’re built to know that if a rabbit starts running from Point A to Point B, we can intercept it in-between for a tasty snack.  It doesn’t disappear from one place and reappear in another.  Like electrons do.  Our built-in common sense simply can’t equip us for cerebral situations beyond mere survival, because there’s never been an evolutionary advantage to do so.


The learned common sense passed down by our parents, or gleaned throughout our own lives, is easier to analyze.  If it seems like most of such ideas do hold up to critical scrutiny, then what’s the point?  Looking through LiveScience’s recently published list of “The 10 Most Obvious Science Findings” might leave you wondering who would dispute that exercise is good for you or that marijuana impairs driving performance, but they’re out there.  And you know what?  We’re better for it.  Public safety issues and possible policy decisions shouldn’t be the subject of simple “just so” stories.  Common knowledge also once held that plenty of red meat is good for you and that smoking’s harmless.  While much of traditional wisdom may end up vindicated in the end, it’s worth it to weed out the stinkers.


I tend to fall on Huxley’s side, but I’ll even take it a step below organization and training.  At its heart, science is just a guy saying “show me.”  This pill lowers cholesterol with fewer side effects?  Show me the numbers.  Bats can use sound waves to detect prey?  Show me how.  It should go without saying that you need to see the goods before you accept anything, rather than just taking someone’s word for it.  If you wouldn’t buy a used vehicle without a Carfax, you shouldn’t buy into an idea without evidence.  That’s just common sense.

Science vs. Pseudoscience: Bigfoot Teaches Us the Difference

After a brutal family engagement Saturday evening, I decided to plop down on the couch, pop a couple cold ones, and find some mind-numbing entertainment.  Bigfoot shows never disappoint.  Destination America, a Discovery Channel station, brought me a delicious delight named “Southern Fried Bigfoot,” an independently produced documentary on the Sasquatches seen south of the Mason Dixon line, such as Florida’s Skunk Ape, Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp Monster, and the Boggy Creek Creature of Arkansas, the last of which inspires stories so silly as to be lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  You can’t expect much scientific rigor on these programs, and this tasty treat was no exception, as the evidence presented encompassed recalled anecdotes recorded (for some reason) with night vision cameras, and the irrefutable proof of the smell of a wet deer (in the woods!  Impossible!).

That’s good fun, but what really twisted my yambag came near the show’s conclusion, during the required “why we still believe” segment that always seems to bookend these things.  The quote may not be exact, as my mind had been partially muddled by a 9% Sierra Nevada stout at this point, but the music swelled and one guy said something to the effect of, “No one can prove that it doesn’t exist, so that gives me a leg up in believing that it does.”  Sorry hoss, but that’s not how it works.  You’re right; it’s virtually impossible to prove something’s nonexistence, that’s why the burden of proof is always placed on the person making the claim.  In science, one typically starts with the null hypothesis, the idea that nothing strange or different is going on, a stance that can only be rejected when sufficient evidence to the contrary is obtained.

The so-called best evidence for the beast’s existence has been refuted innumerable times, perhaps no more succinctly than in Daniel Loxton’s two part summation in the pages of Junior Skeptic, of all places, so I won’t rehash it here.  It’s the lack of answers for certain questions that expose the endeavor as a field that is simply not concerned with determining the actual truth.  Why is there no fossil evidence of apes in North America, and why are Bigfoot carcasses never found?  What about scat?  Are mommy and daddy Bigfeet curbing their kids?  Considering that, as super skeptic Ben Radford has pointed out, there must be tens of thousands of individuals to provide a sufficient breeding population, why are they not seen more often?  Why has a rabid Bigfoot, not in control of its faculties, never broken the treeline and wandered into a neighborhood?  In a country where wolves were nearly wiped out due to their impact on livestock, why has a starving Sasquatch never been caught nabbing a farm animal?

“He knows that’s our food.”  Hand to God, that was the answer of Matt Moneymaker, head of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) and star of Animal Planet’s ratings juggernaut Finding Bigfoot, when asked that last question by the program’s token pseudo-skeptic, Ranae Holland.  Even she rolled her eyes at that one.  The group’s official website further betrays them, as it asserts the BFRO to be “the only scientific research organization exploring the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery,” while claiming in the “About” section, “It has always been the policy of the BFRO to study the species in ways that will not physically harm them.”  You can’t presuppose the existence of something unverified and call yourself “scientific.”  You can’t dismiss the null hypothesis with way-out, illogical answers and substandard evidence like a few eyewitness reports and potentially misshapen or fabricated footprints.  There’s an old aphorism in science about doing everything you can to sink your own ship, so that you know it’s sturdy.  Bigfooters prefer to ignore the gaping hole in the hull and play on like the orchestra of the Titanic.


Despite the purported desires of the people involved and the use of technical sounding jargon and fancy instruments to lend a feigned air of sophistication, Bigfoot “research” is simply not science.  “But what about the Melba Ketchum DNA study released in February?  That was published in a scientific journal!”  Yeah, a journal CREATED by the author because no one else would accept it!  (Sharon Hill at Doubtful News has been all over this one)

Bigfoot teachesEven Harry knows it don’t add up.  Awesome image from

A “pseudoscience” is defined as a claim, belief or practice which is presented as scientific, but does not adhere to a valid, scientific method.  You can spot a pseudoscience by its lack of openness to testing by other experts (as with the Ketchum paper), an absence of progress (still no body?) and, as seen in the examples here, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than refutation.  “He knows that’s our food” and other similar, bonkers assertions show that folks who follow the ‘Foot are not looking to find out *IF* it exists, but are out to prove *THAT* it exists.  Real science fits the theory to the evidence, not the other way around.

Keep these things in mind the next time “UFO’s Abducted My Grandma” or “The Bermuda Triangle Causes Global Warming” comes on the tube late at night.  With a strong nightcap, those shows can be entertaining, but the trappings surrounding them are anything but scientific.

“Do you know how fast you were going?” Law-abiding neutrinos give a glimpse at the scientific process

Neutrinos are funny things.  Their existence was first hypothesized in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli as a way to explain how a certain kind of radioactive decay doesn’t violate well-established physical principles.  Ironic then that 80 years later the poor little guys would themselves be fingered as lawbreakers.  We already knew that neutrinos zip around at ridiculous speeds, close to that of light, enabled by their nearly non-existent mass, but could they actually surpass that cosmic speed limit?  Of course it’s since been confirmed that the original, supernaturally suggestive findings from the OPERA detection project in Gran Sasso, Italy were erroneous, but could the relativity reprisal have been real?  What implications would that have?  And what does the huge, hollow hubbub tell us about how science is done and how it’s reported?


The Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus (OPERA) detector, which finished construction in 2008, was designed to measure the phenomenon of neutrino oscillation.  It turns out that being the smallest and fastest particles in the universe isn’t enough for the bewildering bastards, as they ratchet up the weirdness by actually changing between their three different types while traveling through space.  This realization solved a major problem in the standard model of how the Sun operates, as earthbound measurements only observe between a third and half of the electron neutrinos predicted to be produced by solar activity.  Who would’ve guessed they’d be altering their identities on the way here?!

So that’s two cosmic mysteries the mighty yet tiny neutrino had helped to clear up.  Okay, their presence actually kind of precipitated the “solar neutrino problem” but hey, they were vindicated in the end.  The roguish particles seemed poised to make history again when OPERA announced in September of 2011 they had measured the arrival times of neutrinos produced at the CERN supercollider in Switzerland to be 60 nanoseconds faster than if they had been traveling at light speed.  That might seem like a small discrepancy, but in physics a few billionths can make the difference between ordinary and iconoclasm.


The error was identified in March of 2012 as a faulty GPS cable connection, but that’s only part of the story.  It does show that scientists are human and capable of making mistakes like the rest of us, as with the embarrassing unit conversion mishap that scuttled the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999.  Don’t be fooled though; awry equipment isn’t always the answer when measurement discrepancies have amazing implications.  The original confirmation of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the best piece of evidence we have for the Big Bang, was attributed to an accumulation of bird shit before the antenna was cleaned and the experiment repeated.

And that’s one of the primary tenets of science.  Reproducibility.  Fool us once, Universe, shame on you.  We’ll work harder and come together so we won’t be fooled again.  The real story here is how tentative the potentially revolutionary results were presented, and how the physics community proceeded.  Relativity is one of the most robustly supported theories in science.  Its mathematical confirmation helped give Einstein the celebrity status he still enjoys today.  Your GPS wouldn’t work right without it.  So instead of immediately proclaiming the king to be dead, the OPERA scientists asked the rest of the community, “Uh, could you take a look at this?  It doesn’t look right.”  Sure enough, three different experiments refuted the new data, and even OPERA’s numbers came back to reality once the equipment issue had been resolved.  This is not just a clear-cut victory for Einstein, but for the scientific process itself.

If there are victors in this instance, we can’t ignore the losers.  Antonio Ereditato, OPERA’s spokesperson, resigned after the flap following a “no confidence” vote from other project leaders, even though he himself had criticized the media for over-sensationalizing the initial story.  It’s plain to see that the disconnect between how science works and how it’s communicated is still in effect.  We should take mainstream reports of scientific findings with a grain of salt and try to look for primary sources and accounts whenever we can, as too often our journalists seem to prefer getting it fast to getting it right.

And the cranks banging out homemade manifestos on how relativity is wrong should probably give it a rest.  If billions of dollars of equipment and the brightest minds in the world can’t do it, chances are you didn’t stumble upon revolution from your studio apartment.

February 2013 Revisit: It’s a Conspiracy!~@!~`1

At the end of each month, What Does This Mean? will reflect upon the previous four weeks of posts to correct mistakes, acknowledge discussion and generally put a bow on what we’ve come to know.  Where most media fail to realize that a story doesn’t stop once the ink dries, WDTM? is proud to proclaim that the learning process never ends and that new information should always inform and shape our earlier interpretations.  This inaugural edition will necessarily cover less and take a slightly different tact.  Or is that just what they want you to think???

Frank Drake’s legacy, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), momentarily shut down in 2011.  Was it because they had secretly found what they had been looking for?  Was this year’s flu outbreak part of a government program to sadistically sicken the citizenry?  And how about that meteor in Russia?  Could it have really been an alien spaceship or a nefarious missile test?  Well, I guess anything’s possible, but when you live in a probabilistic universe, you have to play the percentages, and none of those suppositions seem very likely.  So why do major (and sometimes even minor) events always spawn these kinds of way out conspiracy theories?  What does it say about us that we’re eternally looking to undermine the “official story?”  You can probably blame our evolution-addled brains.

Michael Shermer, Editor in Chief of Skeptic magazine and monthly Scientific American columnist, has written several times on the subject.  One of the main driving factors in conspiracy belief seems to be the human tendency to see patterns where they don’t exist.  A phenomenon known as apophenia, it’s thought to be a hold-over from our more danger-plagued ancestors.  Not every rustle in the bushes is a venomous snake, but it’s probably better to assume so and be wrong than the opposite.  As one of the few organisms, if not the only one, to have a theory of mind (the notion that others can think just like I do), we’re also prone to over-observing agency.  “Someone must have done it!”  When we once saw guiding spirits in the rivers and the trees, we now identify shadowy manipulators behind the scenes.  It’s almost comfortable in a way to believe that even if the forces are malevolent, somebody is actually in control of otherwise random events.

And the advent of the internet just amped up the virulence.  Poorly printed leaflets have been supplanted by light speed video delivery.  It’s a lot easier now to find credentialed kooks to back up what you already accept, too.  Smart people are really good at defending views they came to through non-smart avenues.  So when you can find engineers who think the Newtown shooting was staged, it seems a tiny bit more believable than when senile Aunt Edna yells it from the basement.


Okay, I was way wrong about the Chelyabinsk meteor.  I imagined UFO enthusiasts nervously chewing their fingernails, and we got half the Russian population invoking aliens and acts of God.  But when you’ve been legitimately lied to by your government so much, maybe they get a pass.  Let’s not forget, though, that propaganda is different than being able to keep secrets.  Even in America, it’s hard to believe that a government full of Chatty Cathy’s itching for immortality and book deals can keep a lid on everyone involved in a massive Moon landing hoax.  That’s preposterous enough to make a man violent.

But really,  in the Information Age, not one disgruntled grip from the set of “Buzz Bounces Around” has blogged his complicity (or at least had his grandson do it for him)?  Why hasn’t WikiLeaks busted this shit open?  The internet is both the best and the worst thing to ever happen to the spread of weird ideas.  You can bend the digital ears of anyone worldwide with your wackiness, but the rational rebuttal is also mere keystrokes away.  Sites like snopes and the Skeptic’s Dictionary might be outnumbered, but the ammunition exists to combat the crazy if you’re willing to look for it.