Cogito, ergo not ergotism: The Salem Witch Trials

May 19, 2011

After a grueling week of covering conspiracy theories, I thought that I would pick up a gauntlet not so much thrown down as dropped suggestively by Ryan F in the comments of Eve’s wildly successful berserker post a few weeks back:

I’d love to see a similar takedown of ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials; I always have a few students who latch on to that one. There really is an appeal to the mundane scientific explanation for a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t quite fit with modern sensibilities.

So, instead of conspiracy theories, today I’m going to talk about…a lot of people who thought there was a Satanic conspiracy afoot! But this is different because the characters in this story are wearing amusing headgear:

One of the perennial questions of American history is, “What the hell was wrong with the Puritans?” In my opinion, a lot. Let’s face it, the Netherlands didn’t want them, and you had to be a real jerk to make yourself unwelcome in the Netherlands in 1630, let me tell you.

Anyway, between September 1692 and May of 1693, 19 men and women were executed on charges of witchcraft in the towns surrounding Salem, MA, and one man was crushed to death as the court sought to force him into entering a plea. A variety of causes have been suggested for the witch mania that seized New England that year. In truth, it seems likely that a number of factors contributed to the Witch Trials; it is also apparent that the forces that initiated the craze were not the same ones that perpetuated it. Among factors that contributed in various degrees are gender and class (which were related), social and individual psychology, the social structure and beliefs of the townspeople, and, finally, the separation of church and state, which in Salem was about 2 blocks.

I have taught the Salem incident in past conspiracy theory courses. I tend to put a lot of weight on the theological background that made witchery seem like a plausible explanation. In really, truly unacceptably rough terms, the social order was thought to reflect a divine order. The maintenance of a system of covenants (women and children/father, head of household/government, government/God) was seen as ensuring the health of the relationship between the colony and the Lord. When that tranquility was disturbed, one might easily interpret that as someone having made a covenant with someone other than God, wink wink nudge nudge. It also makes a stunning lesson about standards of evidence.

But I digress.

In the 1970s, Linnda R. Caporael, a psychology graduate student at UC, Santa Barbara, published a new hypothesis in Science. She posited that ergotism might account for the physical symptoms that were reported by those making accusations of witchcraft. Ergotism is caused by…wait for it…ergot poisoning. Ergot (Claviceps purpura) is a fungus that grows on various cereals and has a special hankering for rye:

Ergot on wheat. Hold the mayo.

Caporael gives a cursory history of the madness outbreak (entire careers can be consumed by the scholarship around the Witch Trials), and considers three possible explanations 1) fraud on the part of the accusers, 2) psychological/ psychiatric issues, and 3) “physiological explanations.” Because Caporael finds that the possibility of physical ailments causing the outbreak have not been considered in depth before, the review of that literature is necessarily very brief, and she means to fill in the blank. She mentions that “A modern [1949] historian [Marion Lena Starkey] reports a journalist’s suggestion that Tituba had been dosing the girls with preparations of jimson weed, a poisonous plant brought to new England from the West Indies in the early 160o’s” (23), but the reference is not immediately available to me, so it is not clear when the journalist was writing or what evidence the journalist was citing.

Most of the studies of ergot that I have come across stress the effects of ergotism on cattle and livestock, which would be eating the affected grains. Ergot has medical uses, most notably as a vasoconstrictor, and most modern human cases of ergotism are the result of overdose on ergot-based medications. Ergot also contains alkaloid precursors to LSD, and so they share similar structures.

As you might expect given the pharmacology above, the types of symptoms associated with ergotism have to do with vasoconstriction resulting in dry gangrene and insults to the nervous system resulting in convulsions and hallucinations. It is the later suite of symptoms that lead Caporael to hypothesize convulsive ergotism as a possible culprit.

Caporael’s evidence falls into a couple of different categories. The first is “growing conditions.” There was ergot in the region, so it was a possible contaminant of rye stores. Also, she says that the crucial growing period, between April and Thanksgiving 1961, was warm and stormy, as evidenced in Puritan diaries, ideal growing conditions for the fungus. Her second line of evidence is “localization.” Three of the eight afflicted girls lived in the Putnam residence, and Putnam’s farm was large, as indicated by his will. Presumably, the agricultural yield from his substantial land holdings, if they were the source of the ergotism, would be dispersed more widely among the population. And this is how she explains the second group of afflicted girls:

The two afflicted girls, the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, lived in the parsonage almost exactly in the center of the village. Their exposure to contaminated grain from western land [including Putnam’s] is also explicable. Two-thirds of Parris’s salary [as parson] was paid in provisions; the villagers were taxed proportionately to their landholding. Since Putnam was one of the largest landholders and an avid supporter of Parris in the minister’s community disagreement’s, an ample store of ergotized grain would be anticipated in Parris’s larder. (192)

Another sick girl was a servant in the household of the man who was presumably the town’s only doctor. Because Ann Putnam was often sick, he probably visited her a lot and got payments in ergotized grain. Another servant girl, this one on a farm near a river, may have been poisoned from her own Master’s fields, but Caporael says this case is questionable and possibly fraud (on the basis of the timing and nature of the accusation, as well as a second-hand report of the servant admitting to lying).

Another servant on an outlying farm is a bit of a puzzle. She alone was afflicted in the household (though pretty much everyone, including the kids was accused of witchcraft). There is a record of her once staying in town overnight, however. Because this girl had two bouts with the affliction, Caporael entertains the notion that she may have been poisoned the first time and then under psychological duress during the second episode.

I take these first two lines of evidence as an attempt to establish the plausibility of the ergotism hypothesis. The last line of evidence is the testimony of the trial, of which there is a staggering bunch. Caporael is looking for the symptoms of ergotism in the testimony.

After Caporael re-establishes that the outbreak of witches was an abnormal reaction, a strange paragraph follows:

The affected girls’ behavior seemed to be no secret in early spring. Apparently it was the great consternation that some villagers felt induced Mary Sibley to direct the making of the witch cake of rye meal and the urine of the afflicted. This concoction was fed to a dog, ostensibly in the belief that the dog’s subsequent behavior would indicate the action of any malefic magic. The fate of the dog is unknown; it is quite plausible that it did have convulsions, indicating to the observers that there was witchcraft involved in the girls’ afflictions. […]

The importance of the witch cake has incident has generally been overlooked. (25)

Hold on…I must have missed something. There is no contemporary record whatsoever of a dog having convulsions (or not)? If it did have any symptoms at all…surely it would have been mentioned somewhere? Where did the “importance of the incident” happen?

Regardless, lack of dog testimony aside, Caporael mentions the spectral evidence (images of the accused or of their familiars who appeared to the afflicted), and “epileptiform” convulsions which she believes are consistent with convulsive ergotism. She also notes that “[c]omplaints of vomiting and ‘bowels almost pulled out’ are common in the depositions of the accusers.” She also refers to pinches and burning sensations that might signify some sort of ergotic neuropathy.

She then points to what is slightly worse evidence than the dog:

“When examined in the light of a physiological hypothesis, the content of so called delusional testimony, previously dismissed as imaginary by historians, can be reinterpreted as evidence of ergotism. After being choked and strangled by the apparition of a witch sitting on his chest, John Londer testified that a black thing came through the window and stood before his face.”

It was a little monkey-man thing, but that’s almost completely unimportant because we already have enough to determine precisely what Londer was describing, sleep paralysis. The pressure on the chest that becomes someone sitting on you (probably because his body is still “asleep”), the sensation that there are people around you, this is classic sleep paralysis. And it’s very cool to see how confusing sensory data, even when they are fairly common, get interpreted through the filter of the experiencer’s culture. If Londer were alive now, he’d testify that little gray aliens with big dark eyes were standing around his bed. Throughout history, the specters have been variously represented as the recently deceased (as in reports of vampirism and the wacky cures that communities developed for that–exhumation, beheading, staking or cremation!); when the waking dream has a sexual element, the phantoms have become incubi and succubi, and so on. Now they’re “grays.”

Within about, oh, 20 minutes of the publication of Caporael’s paper, the thesis was completely demolished Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb. Their article, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials,” appeared in the December 1976 edition of Science.

Spanos and Gottlieb raise a question that occurred to me while I was reading Caporael, “So, were there any cases of gangrene?” I mean, ergot causes both gangrene and neurological symptoms. If uncontrolled doses were being consumed by the public, surely someone would have contracted gangrene. Or maybe the animals? Most of the studies of ergotism that I found were veterinary, after all. But they take it one step further than my uninformed musings and deploy a full arsenal of reasons why ergotism is unlikely. For instance, convulsive ergotism has been seen in groups where “the inhabitants have suffered from severe vitamin A deficiency” (1390). They note that Salem was affluent enough and had enough fish to avoid such a disease. They note that children, really young children, are the most likely to succumb to ergotism, but in Salem that the ages of the girls trend well over 15 (only 3 of 11 were younger).
The fact that entire families, who you would think would be eating the same food, were not laid low casts further doubt on the hypothesis.

In the case of the gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) that Caporeal discovered in the depositions, Spanos and Gottlieb find much less than would be expected. One instance that Caporael cited as “bowels almost pulled out” in the original text reads like this: “Abigail hath been greviously vexed with the apparition of Eliz: Proctor the wife of John Proctor of Salem, by which apparition she has been greviously pinched, had also her bowels almost pulled out…”. It’s unclear that this is actually explosive at either end of the digestive tract, or whether it is a cramp or…even real. It seems to be a retelling, not an ongoing, verified complaint. Indeed, the three girls who mention what might be construed as gastrointestinal symptoms all had a single bout. There is no mention of vomiting. (Oh! Perhaps Regan in The Exorcist, which was released a few years before the paper, had ergotism! I sense a publication!)

They further notice that there is no record of ergotism being cured by the reading of particular Bible passages in the medical literature. There is no reason why someone who had ergot poisoning would appear to be fine (“hale and hearty”) outside of court, as was the case with these girls. The descriptions of hallucinations and apparitions are not consistent with the types that people report having when they are on LSD (remember, ergot and LSD share some characteristics), such as halos around objects, long-lasting afterimages, rainbow-like colors, etc. Seeing people who aren’t there while awake is reportedly a comparatively rare effect of LSD. The girls did not reportedly display the ravenous hungers that follow ergotic convulsions. The reports of burning sensations are clearly triggered by external suggestion. Lastly, nobody reported that the girls’ skin hues changed, as would be expected with ergotism. When the epidemic ended, it ended. There are no reports of the permanent neurological damage that people who had been ingesting ergot for months would have displayed. Ergotism is in almost in every way a bad match unless you are willing to cherry-pick symptoms.

Nonetheless, while Gottlieb and Spanos put a stake through the heart of the notion that ergotism caused witches, they did inadvertently prove that the reanimated corpse of a discredited theory can wander aimlessly through pop culture.

In 1982, historian Mary K. Matossian, who had been studying the effects of mold poisoning on history and culture, resurrected the theory. Her principal objection to the Gottlieb and Spanos is  that:

“The Salem court record does not mention certain symptoms often associated with mild or early ergotism, such as headache, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, chills, sweating, livid or jaundiced skin, and the ravenous appetite likely to appear between firs. If these symptoms were present, they may not have been reported because they were not commonly associated with witchcraft.”

They didn’t note that the sufferers had changed color, eh? I’d like to refer you to a specialist in this area:

They also would have noticed bits of people falling off, I imagine.

Most of Matossian’s reply is, “Well, you can’t disprove ergotism.” But that’s not positive evidence of ergotism. Matossian does offer more circumstantial evidence of conditions that might have been conducive to ergot, like tree rings, but again, we get nothing that remotely looks like ergotism in the record. Of course, her hypothesis got picked up by the New York Times, and the rest, as they say, is the History Channel.

In a strange way, I feel that this issue could be settled using Baysian analysis. As you probably do not remember because nobody was reading Skeptical Humanities at the time, Baysian analysis appeared in our examination of whether FDR had polio or an autoimmune condition. By looking at the frequencies of different symptoms in known polio cases, researchers were able to assign a very, very low probability that FDR’s particular cluster of symptoms would have appeared in a genuine polio case.

I looked for descriptive surveys of known ergotism outbreaks in human populations, but did not find any. (Be fair, I’m way outside my area here.) If you took a couple of large studies of outbreaks (or lots of little studies), it seems to me that you might be able to assign a likelihood of seeing an outbreak that has the variety of symptoms like the one at Salem.

So, there. Now you have homework. Go do that.



Caporael, Linnda R. “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192.4234 (2 Apr. 1976): 21-26.

Matossian, Mary K. “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair,” American Scientist 70 (1982): 355-357.

Spanos, Nicholas P. and Jack Gottlieb. Science 194.4272 (24 Dec. 1976): 1930-1934.

The History Channel Discovers the REAL Cause of the Black Death

May 16, 2011

I saw part of an episode of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel this weekend. There were far, far too many ridiculous assertions for me to deal with them in any depth. Suffice to say, they kicked a very large number of academic fields in the metaphorical goolies. There were a smattering of academics. I’m not sure if their comments were taken out of context or if they managed to get tenure before going completely insane. Hard to tell. Most of the talking heads, though, were the usual bunch of ancient astronaut proponents, including Erich von Däniken, Giorgio A. Tsoukalos and David Hatcher Childress.

I find it interesting that these guys can read the Bible as literally as any Young Earth Creationist but just think the authors got things wrong a bit. So, if the Bible says there was a flaming chariot, you can bet there really was a flaming chariot, except it wasn’t really a chariot, it was a flaming flying saucer. And that’s pretty much how they read everything: very literally and without skepticism, but they can change the story as necessary to fit their particular nutty theory. Well, that’s how scholarship works, right?

Speaking of scholarship, one of the academics was William J. Birnes, Ph.D. He was wearing a suit and looked quite scholarly. He does have a Ph.D. in medieval English literature from New York University (1974). His dissertation was called Patterns of Legality in Piers Plowman, and he published an article called “Christ as Advocate: The Legal Metaphor of Piers Plowman” in Annuale Mediaevale 16 (1975): 71-93. But he’s also Bill Birnes, UFO Hunter. He more commonly appears in a turtleneck, bomber jacket, aviator shades and a hat that advertises his UFO Magazine (see here).

In his role as tweedy academic, he talked about Gervase of Tilbury. In his work Otia imperialia, Gervase mentions the following incident:

There happened in the borough of Cloera, one Sunday, while the people were at Mass, a marvel. In this town is a church dedicated to St. Kinarus. It befell that an anchor was dropped from the sky, with a rope attached to it, and one of the flukes caught in the arch above the church door. The people rushed out of the church and saw in the sky a ship with men on board, floating before the anchor cable, and they saw a man leap overboard and jump down to the anchor, as if to release it. He looked as if he were swimming in water. The folk rushed up and tried to seize him; but the Bishop forbade the people to hold the man, for it might kill him, he said. The man was freed, and hurried up to the ship, where the crew cut the rope and the ship sailed out of sight. But the anchor is in the church, and has been there ever since, as a testimony. (Source I couldn’t find Otia Imperialia online)

That is totally a weird story. And it involves a ship in the sky. Of course, it’s an anecdote, and the fact that it comes from an educated medieval aristocrat who served an emperor doesn’t somehow make it more reliable than an anecdote from Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. Let us look a bit more closely at Gervase and his writings. According to Wikipedia, he claimed “kinship with Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, and relations allegedly descended from a fey serpent-woman recognizable as the Melusine.” That’s a promising start. He devotes a section of his work to mirabilia or marvels, about which he says, “what constitutes the marvel is our inability to fathom the cause of a particular phenomenon” (quoted in Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories, p. 46). He made a distinction between mirabilia and miracula. As Jean-Claude Schmitt explains,

[T]he miracle invited one to rely on one’s faith, to accept the total power of God, who was upsetting the order that he himself had established… [while] the marvelous aroused the curiositas of the human mind, the search for hidden natural causes, ones that would someday be unveiled and understood. The development of the latter attitude at the turn of the twelfth century must be seen as an early form of the scientific spirit that valued inquiry…true accounts of the facts, and even experimentation. (Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 79-80)

So, hey, score one for Gervase. So, what kind of marvels did he write about? Well, ghosts, lamia, fairy creatures “the phoenix arising from the flames,” “women with boars’ tusks and men with eight feet and eyes” (Joynes, p. 74). Hmmm, perhaps we should take Gervase’s marvels with a grain or two of salt.

But the show wasn’t done with the Middle Ages. No, far from it. At some point, they started wittering on about the Black Death. As someone, possibly Tsoukolas, pointed out, one theory about the Black Death is that it was carried by rats, but William Bramley has a theory that the Black Death was caused by aliens. Now at this point, I think my brain short-circuited and partially shut itself down to protect itself from damage. I liked the way the two theories were given equivalence: “well, there are two theories about the Black Death: one that it was an illness spread by rodent-borne fleas and another that it was caused by chemtrail-spraying little green men. It’s really kind of a toss up.” Now to be fair, some perfectly sensible people have questioned whether the Black Death was caused by the plague, specifically the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Some have suggested an Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever. But human-culling aliens?

In the course of the segment, various talking heads managed to call Y. pestis a virus rather than a bacterium, and they placed all the blame on the rats, rather than on the fleas. Well, of course, they actually vindicated both the rats and the fleas, since now we know it was aliens. After all, it wasn’t the first time the aliens tried to wipe out most of humankind, cuz–hey–The Flood. And they’ve got evidence for their “theory:” reports of lights and shapes in the sky as well as mists and miasmas. In addition, a black figure was often seen outside a town about to be hit by the plague. This figuring wandered about and was seen carrying a scythe and possibly making crop circles. He looked a little like this:

Oh. My. God. Death’s a frikking alien! We’ve got to find the planet Death comes from, and kill all the bastards. Then there’ll be no more death! Of course, reports of the Grim Reaper appearing outside affected towns couldn’t possibly be interpreted allegorically, nor could the accounts be made up or simply mistaken. It’s definitely aliens. Someone alert Above Top Secret! Oh, wait, they already know, and, holy crap, many of them are skeptical: attention William Bramley, when ATS forum members think your theory is a bit far-fetched, it’s time to find another theory.


Further Reading:

Gottfried, Robert S. The Black Death: Natural and Human Disaster in Medieval Europe. New York, Free Press, 1983.

Joynes, Andrew. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Boydell, 2001.

Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: Harper-Perennial, 2005.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the dead in Medieval Society. Tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Ziegler, Philip. The Black Death. Collins, 1969.

The Week in Conspiracy, 14 May 2011

May 15, 2011

I’ve been working on a special post that requires a little research on my part (hey, it’s MY vacation, I’ll spend it how I want), but I’ve still been collecting the conspiracies that have sloshed across my desk. In a bucket.

If you want to see how altered the images from Cinderella are, check this out. Note that the Harry or William or whatever’s jacket might not be as altered as the bright areas suggest, as red is saved differently by different programs.

This week in Osama bin Laden:

“Bin Laden is NOT dead. Or is he? In the mind of the people who didn’t make the effort to investigate the details of the events of September 11, 2001, the recent announcement of Bin Laden’s death was an understandable relief. Bin Laden is most probably not alive today, but he is not dead. Confused yet? Great. Read on because it’s only starting.”

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

Oh, Xtranormal, is there any inane student/teacher interaction you can’t dramatize?

May 12, 2011

I love this. Especially the ending.


Ghost Hunters Slash Fic. Really.

May 10, 2011

Yeah. It’s come to this. Writing about Ghost Hunters slash-fic. The “slash” does not mean that they finally met a ghost who was capable of carving them up. (Man, I’d totally record that episode.) It is a pairing of two characters in a TV show or movie and then making them have sex with each other. Want Kermit and Miss Piggy to get it on? Think that Shaggy and Scooby could build a relationship on something more than Scooby-Snax? Hell, you could even have Marge Simpson do it with the Church Lady. The possibilities are endless, and with your imagination and access to the Internet you can not only make it happen but also traumatize strangers!

But Ghost Hunters? Really? Yeah.

It feels like Jason is looming over him, menacing and Grant gets the strangest feeling that Jason is pissed, maybe wants to hurt him, and he tries to get a hold of himself, because it’s just Jason. His friend. He’s pissed, yeah, but not at him. Grant forgets, and takes another deep breath and holds it for a second even though that means they’re pressed against each other again. He lets it out slowly and he doesn’t think, he just does what feels right, and melts back against the wall and lets his head tilt to the side. And Jason just sort of goes with him, pressing him back and nosing at his cheek, a touch so soft Grant barely feels it. Jason whispers, “Grant” and sighs, and Grant thinks Jason is smelling his neck.

Two words: Neck odor. Sexy!

The comments are even better:

“ever since i started watching ghost hunters, i’ve always wanted to write some jason/grant. they are just too in love. <3333333”

But equally, no, even more disturbing is Tango/Steve fic (from Tango’s POV):

It’s too easy just to lean a little closer, brushing my mouth against his. One of us pushes harder, adding more pressure. I’m not sure which of us did it, but then Steve is kissing me hard, pushing me back until my back bumps up against a wall. His hands flit around me, either unsure of where to settle or unable to decide which part of me to hold on to.

His neck. Grab his neck with both hands and squeeze hard.

Of course, if you are gunning for actual throw-up, I recommend dwelling on the idea behind this image. In the end, they both look a little too much like Nintendo characters for me to take too seriously.

But the depths of hell can be only reached when you tag along with the boys from Paranormal State:

“Can I say, ‘I love you’ without implying that I want to marry you and bear your children through weird future-science?” Sergey panted mindlessly as he felt the squishy flesh giving at the back of Ryan’s throat to accommodate his member.

And this makes me wonder….is there Deadliest Catch slash fic? Dirty Jobs slash (gag) fic (“This time Barsky has to shave more than his head…”; aka, “Splendor in the Pooh”)? 60 Minutes slash fic?

There. I’m pretty sure I’ve hurt you. You’re welcome.


Pitch the Perfect History Channel Show

May 10, 2011

So, I’ve been thinking about the History Channel (or the “History” Channel or the Pseudo-History Channel) and wondering if I could come up with the perfect History Channel show. I suppose it would probably be a reality show featuring mostly unpleasant people doing dangerous and/or stupid things and arguing a lot. But I’m thinking about shows that involve actual history (or “history”). Among the shows listed on the website are such gems as:

I am only including shows listed on the website which have “about the show” information available. I’m not including History International.

A couple of other shows are listed which I hadn’t seen before. First is Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. I watched the episode on the Georgia Guidestones to see what it was about. Well, it’s awkward, with way too much time spent on shots of the investigators giving each other looks when they are interviewing someone. I haven’t quite figured out the relevance of the investigators’ qualifications: one’s a lawyer, one’s an engineer, and one is a journalist described as an “English professor.”  When they get to the guidestones and see all the languages, the English professor whips out his phone and Googles to see what the languages are. Really? Really? That’s your research? You wait until you get there and then start Googling? Not to mention he’s Googling information that is provided at the monument.

During the investigation, they interview various people and uncover various conspiracy theories: evil Rosicrucians planning genocide and using mind control and other occult gifts; good Rosicrucians warning us of global catastrophe. Occasionally Meltzer pops up in the studio like a deus ex machina and dismisses a particular theory (spoiler alert: Rosicrucians aren’t evil). And in the end, he puts the guidestones into the context of the Cold War, when they were built. His explanation is one of the least loopy; however, he does give a certain amount of credence to some of the theories (catastrophic solar flares! asteroids! 2012! Mayans!). Based on the one episode I’ve seen, it’s a conspiracy theory show for people who aren’t quite Jesse Ventura/Alex Jones crazy.

And then there’s MysteryQuest. Again, I was willing to sit through one episode. The episode I chose is called “Return of the Amityville Horror.”

I wasn’t encouraged by the opening, which summarized the story of the Amityville Horror without so much as mentioning the possibility that it was a hoax. Also, someone was bibbling about demons and vortices. But, while I was banging my head against the desk, I saw something out of the corner of my eye: did that bespectacled bald man have a Radfordian look to him? Why yes, that’s Ben Radford, well-known paranormal investigator and skeptic. It was at this moment that my often absent and frequently drunk spirit guide Sir Percival Piddlestew smacked me on the head and showed me a psychic vision: “Ben Radford’s point of view will get short-shrift.” If you don’t believe I made this prediction, ask Bob. (Spoiler alert 2–James Randi owes me a cool million).

So, is the Amityville house still (or again, or for the first time) haunted? Nope, it’s fine. Apparently the ghosts and demons and assorted paranormal whatnot have packed up and moved across the country to Wolfe Manor in Clovis, CA. What the supposed haunting at Amityville has to do with the supposed haunting at Wolfe Manor, I have no idea, unless it be the terrifying Ghost of Marketing come to call.

The investigative team includes a paranormal investigator and a demonologist joined by a medium and a scientist/engineer who makes ghost-hunting gadgets. No Ben Radford. The owner of Wolfe Manor shows them a picture of what could be a ghost or a demon:

Personally, I think it’s a velociraptor in ceremonial robes, possibly a reptilian mason. Or the Egyptian god Horus. Pareidolia‘s fun. As for the investigation, if you’ve ever seen Ghost Hunters, or Ghost Adventures, or Ghost Lab, you might as well have seen this investigation, except that Ghost Hunters are paragons of skepticism compared to these people.

Once the investigation is over, they take their data to analyze at the scientist’s lab–which is also haunted. This is where Radford comes in. There is security video of a desk chair rotating and a cubicle wall falling down on the same night six hours apart. Radford investigates that, and comes up with possible natural explanations. The scientist agrees that these explanations are plausible or would be, if both events hadn’t occurred during the same night. That’s it. Radford isn’t part of the main investigation, and he doesn’t get to comment on the practices used by the team. The team goes on to investigate the lab/warehouse. Upshot: at both locations there are “heat anomalies.” At Wolfe Manor, there is a possible vortex. They aren’t sure if the lab is haunted, but Wolfe Manor definitely is.

So, here’s your challenge: come up with the perfect idea for a History Channel show. Include title and description, if the spirit moves you. Try to incorporate as many of the following as possible:

  • Nostradamus
  • 2012
  • Mayans
  • DOOM!
  • Ancient aliens
  • Lost civilizations
  • Bigfoot
  • Freemasons
  • Reptilians
  • Illuminati

And anything else you can think of. Extra points if you can work in Hitler somewhere (nostalgia for the days when the History Channel was the Hitler Channel).

Grand prize: one shiny new Internets!

The week in conspiracy (Mother’s Day Edition)

May 8, 2011

What a week! Anyway, on with the conspiracies.

Michael Shermer finds that Donald Trump’s birth certificate is a “layered” fake. Not to be confused with a layer cake.

Take the wit and wisdom of Alex Jones with you wherever you go with the Alex Jones quote generator.

Plowed Clouds reports that HAARP closed down its website, apparently realizing that they had been blowing all of their war- and weather-inducing schemes by publishing them to a website. I simply do not believe that The Age of Reason is one of her favorite books. Do read the list of her favorite sites, btw. Wow.

Why is MUFON covering up alien encounters? asks one man a year and a half ago.

Hack writer (look at the last paragraph) Nick Redfern speculates about the men in black. They are Satanic aliens who are somehow associated with Ouija boards.

If GMOs are so safe, why don’t the Obamas eat it? asks someone with unparalleled access to shit they just made up.

According to the Fortean Times (heheh), conspiracy theorists are more likely to want to be part of a conspiracy.

Perhaps HAARP is responsible for whale beachings? Sure. Why not? Makes earthquakes. Controls the weather. Messes with dolphins’ brains. HAARP is like a swiss army knife of terror.

The powers that be intend to split the country in two along the New Madrid fault line, which appears to RUN THE LENGTH OF THE MISSISSIPPI!

New in the FBI Vault: the Ox-Files–cattle mutilation records.

Someone with access to We Are Change L.A.’s website follow invisible alien hiding in a hollow mooner David Icke. Not inspiring confidence, boys. The stuff about the satanic pope is almost insignificant by comparison.

A proposal to tax people who drive the most sends technophobes into a tizzy. Of course, it seems the proposal would only track how far someone drove, not, you know, relay their information to a directed energy weapon satellite in orbit.

A new spin on the expanding Earth theory: the core of the planet is spinning out of control. I’ll by that. If it’s spinning, there is certainly nothing we can do about it!

Seth Mnookin pointed me to Andrew Wakefield’s descent into abject goofery.

Messenger discovers (smiley) faces on Mercury!

Here’s a weird little article, and I don’t exactly know what to make of it yet: “President Ahmadinejad cohorts accused of using sorcery.”

It’s hard to know where to file “False Flags: An American Tradition,” so I file it here.

Is the alien menace perhaps more menacing to those with negative blood types?

I just like the title: “Ancient Mayans Endorse Tim Tebow as Denver Broncos Starter and Other Suspect Suppositions

Guy in alien costume film leaked!

Are conspiracies becoming a new religion?” dude asks.

And one for the ladies: Were UFOs seen in the ashcloud above Iceland’s volcano? No. Those were dragons.

Rush Limbaugh thinks that Obama is withholding FEMA aid from Texas because they are a red state. Of course, it’s high time that we broke Texas’ dependence on the federal teet.

The number of Birthers is down following the release of the birth certificate, says Rolling Stone. Remember when Obama released his birth certificate? Seems like years ago.

How will Chuck Baldwin run a presidential campaign from the moon?

Mitchell and Webb look at the Princess Di assassination:

Did you know that nothing hit the World Trade Center on 9/11? It was all just CGI. It just goes to show that if you can say something, it must be true.

This week in Osama bin Laden

Images from the compound where OBL was killed, if you flip through them to the bloody ones (and they are graphic), reveal that one of the men is lying on what appears to be a water pistol. I can’t wait to see the conspiracy theories that come out of that one.


ABC News reports that the “terror playbook” has been found. The NFL banned the fumblerooski because they knew it was a threat to our way of life.

HAHAHAHAHA! David Ray Griffin apparently describes himself as “Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. David Ray Griffin.” HAHAHA! Also, he thinks OBL died in 2001. Way to cite your own press release, asshat. Did you nominate yourself for that Nobel too? Haha!

Alternative media, reports the alternative media, has benefited from the Osama Bump. So, clearly alternative media orchestrated the fake assassination.

Daily Mail says that Zawahari may have been responsible for tipping off the US with this something-other-than-confidence inspiring opener: “Osama Bin Laden’s deputy led U.S. troops to the Al Qaeda leader’s hideout so he could take over the terrorist group, it was claimed today.” Damn you, passive voice!

Did Barack bin Obama take down the American flag at ground zero so he “lovingly drape” OBL’s coffin in it? Christ, it’s like the type of thing that Victoria Jackson would write.

Guy on web says that he saw the FoxNews ticker report the death of OBL days before it happened. Because his twitter stream is locked, I can’t check it.

Conspiracy theory of the week! A real humdinger!

Royal wedding or Illuminist fulfillment of biblical prophesy? A sample for your delectation:

Prince William and Kate Middleton demonstrated their blood lust and newfound birth into the Illuminati on April 29, 2011.[…] My suspicions were first aroused when I looked at the date of the wedding. The date is April 29, 2011. Or remove the april 2 and the 20 and you get 9, 11 or as the cabal who lead the new world order would say 9/11. Personally I watched this wedding so I know what the real deal is since it was broadcast live. My evidence that I have unearthed through my research fully supports my claim that Prince William and Kate Middleton sought the head of Bin Laden to be procured for them as a honeymoon gift from the Illuminati so they could baptise themselves into the Illuminati by drinking the blood of the innocent from the rotting skull of Bin Laden as a blood oath of allegiance and unswerving obedience to their overlords.

That’s all for now. In case you missed it, I appeared on the BBC World Service last week talking about conspiracy theories. Also, Ted Goertzel, with whom I’ll be appearing on a panel in October, was in the Washington Post discussing OBL conspiracy theories.


OBL-la-di OBL-la-da…Life goes on…

May 6, 2011

It’s day three of the Osama bin Laden conspiracy theory watch here at Skeptical Humanities. It really has drowned out all other conspiracies this week, and it seems to have reawakened widespread interest in older theories regarding 9/11.

A number of insignificant tidbits have changed with respect to what happened in the Pakistani compound, none of which directly impacts the important part of the story, that OBL was killed. Nonetheless, suspicious types have claimed that this is “unraveling.” Global Research, a website I don’t understand, has
seized on this, and looks to Obama’s “atrocity” at Ground Zero (I don’t think they know what that word means) as, well, I’ll let them say it:

To add a grotesque and sickening final insult, the swaggering Barack Obama will grandstand atNew York’s Ground Zero, in a staged celebration of a fictional murder, on the hallowed ground where thousands of people actually died at the hands of theUSgovernment and its covert operatives.

Obama even invited George W. Bush to share his “victory lap”.

This act of exploitation will dispel all illusions about the criminal nature of this liar who has done Bush/Cheney one better by stooping even lower into the depths of depravity.

Personally, I liked the flight suit that Obama was wearing during the visit.

Ironically, Global Research thinks that Wag the Dog was a documentary.

Alex Jones’s little friend, who we’ll call Watson, says that the announcement from al Qaida that OBL is KIA comes from a “government contractor” who is a little Jew-ish (look for the delightful dragging of Jews into the story). However, Watson does not seem to recognize that the SITE Institute is not the original source, and that if they want to go to the jihadi websites that SITE monitors, they will find the statement themselves.

Also in the news is a document that a radical American cleric who is currently on the kill or capture list visited the Pentagon within 6 months of the 9/11 attacks. Notice how he was not on the kill or capture list at the time he visited. Of course if the 9/11 hijackers did not actually hijack anything, why is it important enough for Watson to mention that this guy preached to them?

In news abroad, a Cambridge poll finds that 2/3 of Pakistanis think that the man who was killed was not OBL.

If there was a raid and intelligence was seized, one would expect that information about potential attacks would be found and authorities alerted, right? I mean, I’d hope so. Nonetheless, Prison Planet interprets the fact that this is apparently happening as proof positive that “the government is exploiting the Osama death fantasy as an excuse to expand the police state grid in the United States and acclimate the populace to the presence of militarized cops and unconstitutional random searches in mass transit hubs.” Again, show me the evidence that your interpretation is correct, and I’ll change my mind. And I do not think that the word “grid” means what you think it means, either.

Jim Marrs, who is wrong about almost everything except his awesome hat-beard combination, thinks that Osama has been dead since 2001.

You can see where this goofy quip might go: Killing Osama bin Laden as an excuse to pass climate legislation.

Altmed ding-dong Dr. Steve R. Pieczenik continues to say that he has special inside information about the 9/11 “false flag” operation. He still hasn’t given us a feckin’ name of the “General under Wolfowitz,” which would either allow us to investigate the veracity of his claim or more likely get him sued retarded for libel. So, I have no reason yet to even take him seriously.

Snopes, which is awesome, reports on a rumor that OBL’s corpse washed ashore in India. Turns out he was in a weighted bag, and also it did not happen.

Ben Radford wonders why it is so difficult for people to accept that OBL is dead and notes the complexity of the stories they spin to support their almost certainly unfounded suspicions.

That’s what I have time for. I’m off to virtual drinking skeptically.


There. My eyes have rolled so far back they’re stuck.

May 5, 2011

The fact that someone would feel they had to ask and entertain the question of whether or not someone who is pursuing a career in the academy should blog is thoroughly depressing.

Also, Ivan Tribble can go fuck himself. Big-time.



More OBL Conspiracies

May 5, 2011

I’ve been trying to keep up with the conspiracy theories this week, but they are coming so fast and furious 5 that I can hardly get to them all. Nonetheless they are fascinating, not only for their predictability (many of the same ones were repeated about Elvis, Hitler and Michael Jackson) and…utter inconsistency with one another. Usually clusters of correct ideas tend toward what actually is correct. This is narrative noise, as far as I can tell.

Let’s get at it, and may Shatner give me strength:

So, the first one is the funniest. By far. This is the conspiracy theory that the picture of the President and cabinet in the Situation Room during the raid was Photoshopped. I suspect that they may be on to something:

Do you notice how conspiracists in the consequent 8 pages of comments start to get into it? Sad. WHY CAN’T YOU SEE STARS IN THE PHOTO?!?

Striking similarities have emerged between the hunt for OBL and the trajectory of the Harry Potter series. (While not a CT, I think that it is part of the propensity to link unrelated things.)

A conspiracy theory from Alex Jones states that the CIA is employing theatrics to heighten the drama of the “Osama murder photo release,” you know. Of course, Obama has decided to seal the photos, so swing and a miss, Alex, m’boy. But there are real fake photos online, if you just can’t get enough gore.

Lew Rockwell describes the “doctored” Situation Room photo as a screening of a “snuff film.” He follows the post with the comment: “How telling is it to see the military guy sitting in the larger ‘running the meeting’ chair while Obama sits off to the side with Joe Biden?” Since you asked, not at all, you delusional twit. And by military guy, you mean “Brigadier General Marshall Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command.” Notice how he’s a little too busy to “run a meeting.” Other groups are picking up this narrative, like Before It’s News, whose correspondent says that because we don’t have film of the firefight, everything is a lie, a non sequitur on steroids.

Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice (and the American Way) say that the DNA evidence will not be compelling.

We Are Change L.A. is citing Russia Today, a slightly worse source than the Weekly World News, to support their claim that the US is just getting rid of an old CIA asset. If you needed to see how reliable RT is, they had Alex Jones on.

A fascinating video has appeared on the prestigious YouTube that links OBL, a coming New Madrid earthquake, Mississippi River floods, a police crackdown at an Illinois college campus, and international nuclear terrorism.

Cindy Sheehan seems to have jumped the shark.

Paul Joseph Watson at Prison Planet sees the appeal for unity as a publicity stunt on Obama’s part. And then he talks about all sorts of other unrelated stuff. Of course his boss, Alex Jones, would never use the Osama death to promote himself. (Watch his introduction to himself.) Watson, by the way, describes the operation as a Jessica Lynch-style fable. And the Jones people, again, are throwing out a variety of different agendas whose ends are supposed to be served by an announcement of the death of OBL. It reminds me of the WTC 7 conspiracies. Pick an evildoer and run with it, man! Jeez.

I freaking love this story, how a group of undergrads predicted where bin Laden would be found. Down to the house. I remember the story when it broke a few years back and was wondering how they had done. But then William Gibson retweeted the follow-up. Heheh. Not a conspiracy theory, but fun.

Mexicans are, according to Alex Jones, taking the announcement of the death of bin Laden as an invitation to come up north. What, does he think he’s Lou Dobbs now?

That the story is unclear and shifting is proof that it never happened.

Presumably, bin Laden was shot to avoid proving every 9/11 nutter right. Damned wizards turning their giants into windmills!

Today Jones announces “US Official calls 9/11 and Osama bin Laden Death “Hoax“. OMG! Of course, since all he has to offer is that he is “prepared to testify in front of a grand jury how a top general told him directly that 9/11 was a false flag inside job,” and since by “official” Jones means, a guy who claims to have advised the Carter Administration, the chances of him getting to perjure himself are relatively remote. Oh, he’s also apparently a health crank on the side. Furthermore, the destroyed helicopter was apparently a super secret stealth helicopter (perhaps the type that is following Mel Gibson around in Conspiracy Theory?). Of course, there was that guy tweeting about their stealthlessness during the raid.

[Update! Turns out, according to Jane’s, the images of the helicopter that was left behind suggest that it is classified technology. I’ve also heard people talking about radar-frustrating skin.]

Pittsburgh Steeler Rashard Mendenhall should have his twitter account taken away from him for his own good. “We’ll never know what really happened,” he twat (the accepted past tense of the verb “to tweet”). “I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.” Good for you, mate! Nobody other than wackaloons say that happened. And you don’t get to suspend your judgment in ignorance and say, “We’ll never know.” Of course the crap we can know. Get off yer backside and do your homework! And go run laps.

The Kristian Krazies have refused to be silent about this. Worldview Weekend, who wants us, apparently, to just trust them, says Obama was not in charge of the operation that took down OBL. Presumably “they” are also forcing him to go to Ground Zero for the victory lap. Evolution News, which is apparently a thing, says that somehow, through junk DNA, Osama’s death proves evolution is false:

President Obama is said to have known the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden since September but chose to wait until May to authorize action against him. Why the delay? Could it perhaps have been to provide a super-timely news hook for the rollout of Jonathan Wells’ new book, The Myth of Junk DNA? If so, an additional note of congratulation is owed to Mr. Obama.

Shameless. Of course it’s not just our own domestic weirdos who have lost it, but also members of the Iranian Parliament (the original “No Spin Zone,” if I am not mistaken) have decried OBL as a Zionist puppet.

One man in the town where Osama was killed said that he can’t believe that the world’s most wanted man was living down the street. (snark)Of course, why should we care about this testimony when the Pakistani intelligence seems to not have been able to pick up bin Laden?(/snark)

The nuke conspiracy that was brewing a few days ago has become more clearly articulated, Underpants Gnome-style: “1- Create and Kill Patsy Bin Laden 2- Nuke a US City 3- Total Martial Law, 4- PROFIT!

Of course, everyone celebrates the death of Osama bin Laden in his own way:

And, finally, a hard-hitting CNN poll determined that most Americans believe that Osama bin Laden is now in hell.

Stay tuned! I’m sure we have not heard the end of this.