David Mitchell on the Burden of Proof

September 15, 2011

His is the only youtube channel to which I subscribe, by the way. Unfortunate how he used the word “skeptic” when he meant “denier,” but that’s my personal beef.

Also, new rule. If  you laugh, you need to give a donation to the NCSE. They recently took up climate science as one of their interests. Also, Eugenie Scott is awesome, an educator of truly epic proportions.


In Praise of Sutton Hoo Woo

September 14, 2011

All right, I admit it, I am writing this post mostly as an excuse to use the phrase “Sutton Hoo woo.” It’s a lovely phrase. Try saying it. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

See, wasn’t that satisfying?

More seriously, though, we’ve all heard psychics claiming that they have worked with the police and provided material assistance in finding missing persons and dead bodies and in solving cases. In every instance, these claims have proved to be dubious, at best. We’ve also heard of dowsers claiming to have found…well, all sorts of things using their magic sticks.

The excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial may be an instance where fringe beliefs actually did contribute to the discovery of a great treasure and human remains (sort of). Now, right off the bat, I should make two things clear: in the first place, it’s unclear to what extent unconventional beliefs contributed to England’s greatest archaeological discovery. Secondly, I’m not saying that anything extraordinary actually happened. Ghosts and magic sticks didn’t actually lead to the discovery, but the belief in ghosts and magic sticks may have acted as a catalyst. I guess what I’m saying is that someone who is a bit of a woo can also be a Big Damn Hero.

In this case, our Big Damn Hero is the delightfully named Mrs. Pretty. Edith May Pretty was the daughter of a wealthy northern industrialist. In 1926, she married Col. Frank Pretty, and the two of them bought Sutton Hoo House, a large Edwardian mansion near Woodbridge in Suffolk. In 1930, Mrs. Pretty found herself pregnant at the age of 47. Four years later, her husband died.

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Pretty became interested in spiritualism, frequently travelling to London to consult with a spiritualist medium. According to Joseph Allen McCullough, Mrs. Pretty “claimed to have strange dreams and visions of the place, including a vivid dream where an Anglo-Saxon funeral procession buried the body of their king inside a ship in the largest of the mounds.”  According to the video below, it was a friend of Mrs. Pretty’s who saw the ghosts:

Mrs. Pretty also had a nephew who was a dowser. He said there was treasure under Mound 1. Armed with this supernatural information, Mrs. Pretty decided to hire herself an archaeologist. She consulted with Guy Maynard, curator of the Ipswich Museum, who suggested Basil Brown, a self-taught but conscientious and successful excavator. She paid him 30 shillings a week and provided him with accommodation in the chauffeur’s cottage and the assistance of two estate workers (one of whom was named Tom Sawyer).

Based (allegedly) on the supernatural insights she had gained, Mrs. Pretty suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1.  Brown did begin to excavate Mound 1 (using a long probe designed by Mrs. Pretty), but concluded, logically if erroneously, that Mound 1 had been looted. Instead he turned to Mounds 2, 3 and 4. Mounds 3 and 4 were cremation burials that had been looted. Mound 2–one of the largest mounds–produced a number of scattered rivets. It was a ship burial, but it too had been looted.

The next year (1939), Mrs. Pretty again suggested that Brown excavate Mound 1. He did so, with extraordinary results. As with Mound 2, he found ship rivets, but in Mound 1, they were still in place. The dark coloration of the sandy soil also showed the outline of an enormous ship (larger than any other Migration Era or Viking Age ship yet discovered).  At this point, the Office of Works and the British Museum got involved, even though they had other things to worry about: the Office of Works was busy building airstrips, and the British Museum was busy crating up its treasures and sending them to the London Underground for safekeeping in anticipation of WWII. Consequently, the initial excavation was a rather hurried affair, but worth it. Mound 1 proved to be an unlooted, probably royal Anglo-Saxon ship burial:

The ship

The helmet

Recreation of helmet made by Tower of London armourers


Shoulder clasp

No body or bones were actually found, but in subsequent excavations, phosphate traces were found in the soil, suggesting that a body had once lain there. The soil is highly acidic; almost no wood from the ship survived either.

After the treasures were unearthed, a coroner’s inquest was held to decide who was the rightful owner: the crown or Mrs. Pretty. The court decided that the treasure belonged to Mrs. Pretty. Martin Carver, who led the most recent excavations at Sutton Hoo, describes what happened after the inquest:

Charles Phillips [who led the British Museum excavation] mentions family pressure to keep the jewellery, but Mrs. Pretty’s own position is less certain. Her spiritualist counsellor soon came to stay with her, and Phillips took a stroll with him that evening on the heath, volunteering his opinion that a presentation of all the finds to the nation “would be a splendid gesture” (Carver, p. 22)

Ultimately, Mrs. Pretty did donate the treasure to the British Museum, “thus making the most generous donation to the Museum ever made in the lifetime of a donor. Mrs Pretty was offered the honour of Dame of the British Empire, which she declined” (Carver, p. 22). The treasure was then taken to the London Underground for the duration of the war.

So, how much influence did spiritualism and dowsing have in the discovery of the ship burial? I have no idea. Certainly, some of the claims seem exaggerated. Carver downplays the influence: “whatever her sensitivity to the attentions of solicitous phantoms, Mrs Pretty was no stranger to scientific archaelogy” (p. 4). She had visited the pyramids in Egypt, and her father had gotten permission to excavate the remains of a Cistercian Abbey near their family home in Cheshire:

She would have been aware of the responsibilities of excavating burial mounds, and had already refused to allow enthusiastic amateurs to try their hand. In her case a keen eye and an educated curiosity would have encouraged investigation as surely as any interest in the other world. (Carver, p. 4)

More importantly, there is nothing mystic about the discovery: Mrs. Pretty lived on an estate that had big, honking mounds in the back yard. No one knew exactly what they were, but the idea that they were burials was hardly outlandish. And with pagan burials comes treasure. There had been rumors of treasure for centuries. Certainly the looters thought there was treasure. Nor is the interest in Mound 1 particularly surprising. It’s really big (admittedly, so is Mound 2).

Still, it seems likely that Mrs. Pretty’s interest in spiritualism and her faith in her nephew’s dowsing may have played some role in her decision to hire someone to excavate, and her spiritualist medium may have encouraged her to donate the treasure to the British Museum.

Edith May Pretty: First Class Woo.  Big Damn Hero.



Bruce-Mitford, Rupert. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Handbook. London: British Museum, 1972.

Carver, Martin. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Comic Book Review: The Big Lie

September 14, 2011

“Lies are like unwashed socks,” opens Rich Veitch’s new comic, The Big Lie. “They come in all sizes and stink to high heaven.” Take the stinker he just published, for instance.

The Big Lie is the story of Sandra Stratton, who works at the Large Hadron Collider in 2011 but travels back in time to the morning of 9/11 to rescue her husband, who was killed in the attacks. She materializes in the WTC subway, and opens with a pee joke:

This is the high point of the comic; it’s all downhill from there. Also, doesn’t it seem strange that they chose as their model a surprised, unbespectacled Desiree Schell?

Anyway, because of some quantum, Sandra has teleported back into the past, but because of some pesky tachyon entanglement miscalculation issues, she only has one hour to rescue her husband. But here’s how Veitch puts it:

Big spelling fail.

Carl’s at an early morning meeting, discussing, as best I can tell, the possibility of demolishing a real steel framed building in Iraq for Steven Spielberg. Really.

I had hopes for this comic book. Usually, when you encounter a truther in the wild of the Internet, you will be debated at and shown youtube videos. I thought that moving to a new medium would perhaps change this. So what does Desiree do when she sees her husband, Carl? SHE DEBATES HIM AND SHOWS HIM FECKING YOUTUBE VIDEOS!!


So they settle into a debate not unlike Plato’s Phaedrus, only populated by snarky douchebags. Take, for instance, the following exchange:

For you non-engineers, Carl is a moron. Silly-puttying “teh thermites” to the wall will only give you burned silly putty and burning thermite on the floor. It burns so hot that you’d actually need to weld trays to the steel of the building, and even then, you would only scorch the steel, not cut it:

That scene of thermite not cutting a steel beam, by the way, is from Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura by the way. Yet he fails to learn anything from it. Oh well. As she is being dragged away by security,  Sandra exclaims, “Building 7!”:

I know how you feel, Carl. Oh, by the way, Carl doesn’t recognize his wife, because she was never crazy or old before.

As soon as Sandra is escorted from the building,  the office is rocked by a gigantic….

This is the plane hitting, not an enormous exploding owl, as you might expect from the noise it made. In the last scene, they see exposed thermite bombs on the steel beams in their office building. This means that the author is endorsing the idea that not only did the conspirators crash planes, but were also able to decide which floors they would hit, a far, far more complicated project than either an airline strike or a demolition. If you’re going to be wrong, be shamefully, spectacularly wrong, that’s my motto.

It’s confusing. It’s pedantic and saturated with bad arguments by every single character, the product of a mind detached from reality. It’s prefaced by the statement that:

The sheer number of spelling/grammar/factual/anachronistic errors suggests to me that someone at editor at Image, a usually reputable publisher, did not really care if it looked as bad as it is. At least I like to think so. It’s too bad. Veitch, who used to rub shoulders with Alan Moore, is now piddling in the shallow end of the pool with the kids from the short bus.

RJB (with a shout out to Steven for letting me take a peek at his copy!)

This Week in Conspiracy 9/11/11

September 11, 2011

I wouldn’t have thought ten years ago that I would be doing what I’m doing now, blogging the strange ins and outs (mostly outs) of the conspiracist mind. If you haven’t heard, it’s been a decade since the World Trade Center attack. The country has not yet fully recovered from that incomprehensible day. I remember groping for some semblance of a narrative to explain what was unfolding in front of my eyes, and I clearly remember the sense of watching the second tower collapsing with a sense of the unreal.

Eventually that narrative emerged, but there are, as always, holdouts against reality, and to these people I now turn. There may be some old stuff in here. The deluge of 9/11 conspiracist stuff I’ve gotten on Twitter this week includes a lot of rehashed, long debunked stuff, especially youtube videos.

  • Who controlled the planes?
  • Wow. I found something worse than Rebecca Black. It was through David Icke’s site. This greasy cheese-eating troll and his bopping idiot consort better never meet a family member or they’re going to get disemboweled:

And that’s all. We’ll have double dose next week, as there is a lot of stuff I could not get to, like, all the non-9/11 conspiracy theories.

Update: A few weeks ago the archive.org put up a collection of 9/11 related news from the day of the attacks and other materials. I am told (below) that it is a woo-free zone.


Interview with American Freethought

September 11, 2011

I caught up with John and David from the American Freethought podcast at Dragon*Con, and they asked me to be on their show for the 9/11 episode. That interview is up right now. Go. Listen. Subscribe.

I am currently working on the 9/11 version of the “week in conspiracy,” but there is a lot. Go figure.


Here’s a weird reply to my work…

September 9, 2011

This, I think, is a response to my email exchange with a CNN reporter in April.

Well, an astrologer(?) came across it and took issue with it. Then he explains how my Saturn is weak.

This is such a strange planet.




Superstitions as a Window Into Culture: Whooping Cough Cures

September 7, 2011

As Dragon*Con approached, I gathered my thoughts and made notes for a panel about superstition. As you might imagine, while as a general skeptic I have some opinions about the matter, I found that I was having a hard time conjuring examples on the fly.


Dragon*Con Superstition Panel: Kylie Sturgess, Bob Blaskiewicz, Steve Novella, Stephen King, Barbara Drescher (photo by Maria Walters)

Enter Opie and Tatem’s Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions, which I picked up and started reading a few weeks ago. It opens with a surprising use for adulterers: if you secretly rub your warts on them, you will be cured. Personally, I think that this was more likely an adulterer detection test–rub your warts on the suspected adulterer and if the warts clear up, well, it’s a mixed blessing.

The volume focuses on the folk wisdom and superstitions in the British Isles, but I find that by reading them, really do get a sense of the ways of life of the people who embraced the practices. In fact, the type of superstitions that you encounter can tell you a lot about the region it comes from. In a fishing community, if you saw a bowl turned over, you might be wary of going out in your boat for fear of capsizing. In a mining town, if you found your work shoes tipped over in the morning, you might be excused for not going down in the hole that day. Superstitions reflect the fears, hopes and values of the people who harbor them.

You can tell a lot about the lives from people from what they fear. As most of the superstitions in the Oxford Dictionary date from the 19th century and earlier (there was intense interest in “collecting” folklore in the 19th century), they reflect the concerns of rural, largely agricultural communities, for instance, warding off droughts and keeping your pollinating bees in the loop about the head of the household’s health. Hives were abandoned, however, and droughts still occurred, perpetuating the need for the superstitions. But I found something I was not expecting as I sifted through this tome, something that spawned so many proposed cures and protections in all ages across the British Isles that it must have been a matter of near-obsessive concern–whooping cough.

Now, the compilers of the dictionary did not miss the importance of the themes running through the superstitions, so even though a whooping cough cure might be listed under “caterpillar” and another under “running water,” those two entries will also be found in the subject index under “whooping cough.” This is a very useful index. Now, the dates that I am giving here are approximate–sometimes the source is a printed interview of remembering their childhood–for the most part, however, the superstition was alive within the lifetime of someone living when the reference was made. Also, I should point out that with a single exception, the metaphorical interpretations that follow are my own, though I think that they are realistically plausible speculations.

A number of clear themes in British superstitions surrounding whooping cough emerge from the catalog assembled by Opie and Tatem. One motif that sticks out–and illustrates that everyone knew exactly what was at stake when a child contracted whooping cough–is the theme of burial, which appears in a number of guises. The most straightforward example is the practice, recorded in the 1830s, of “dipping the persons affected nine times in an open grave” (49). Modified versions of this dipping practice–perhaps an allusion to baptism, or possibly trying to “fake out” death by pseudo-burial–appear at other times as well. One that is clearly related is to take a child to a mill and dipping them in the hopper. As late as the early 20th century, people recalled patients being taken to a grain mill during an epidemic, and the miller starting up the mill and saying, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, grind away this disease.” You might have to repeat this several times for optimal results (248). A shallower burial might suffice, when one digs a shallow hole and puts the patient face down to breathe into it, possibly to bury only the disease itself (48). Another version was to take a child into a cave. In the 1810s, one might seek to propitiate the “aerial beings” by taking the child into a cave and chanting: “Hob-hole Hob! my bairn’s got kink-cough: take’t off; take’t off” (67). Opie and Tatem found a machine age variation on this theme, hanging the head of a child out of the window of a train going through a tunnel (321), because if fresh coal smoke doesn’t cure an irritated respiratory system, I don’t know what will.

Cures for whooping cough often involved a surprisingly large amount of cruelty to very small animals. For instance, there is a whole suite of superstitions that involve hanging something from the afflicted’s neck. The whooping cough, of course, constricts the airways of very small children, and the attention to the neck may reflect an application of the magical cure to the site of the problem. In the 1850s, one might take a caterpillar and put it in a little bag around a baby’s neck. As the caterpillar died, so did the cough abate (64). a decade later, you might take a dead beetle, hang it around the neck of a child with whooping cough and as the bug rotted away, the cough vanished too. In the 1890s, one might take nine hairs off the back of a donkey (there’s that number 9 again), put it in a bag around the neck of the sick kid. When I wondered why the hell one would look at a donkey’s back and say, “Hey, that could be a cure for whooping cough!” I found an interesting photo:


Donkeys have dark crosses on their back! Now this is really interesting, and now I wonder if the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in the Bible might have been inspired by this probably fairly common sight. The cross then becomes a sort of divine butt-print and an ever-present reminder to the faithful of that particular story. Clever that! [Note: see Pacal’s excellent correction below!] Also, this suggests reasons for a really bizarre cure, passing the child underneath a donkey, which was recorded in the 1820s and remembered as late as the 1930s (122-123). This also seems to be related to a few other practices, for instance, passing the baby underneath a piebald horse (305). Also, one might pass the child through the arched roots of a bramble bush, specifically cited as a symbolic rebirth (37). Lacking a donkey, you could pass the child under the belly of a piebald horse, whose breath was also thought to be curative (305-306).

Courtesy Bill Atkinson.

Getting back to things that were traditionally hung around the neck of children, items usually associated with squeezing were also employed, including the corset lace of the child’s godmother (with 9 knots in it!) or the garter of the child’s godfather (174-175).

Getting back to cruelty to small animals, in the 1850s, one might pass small snails between the hands of the afflicted and hang them by a string in the chimney. The cough was thought to leave as the snails died. An earlier version involved wrapping a house spider in muslin above the mantle and letting it die. One might also feed the hair of the sick baby to a dog, hiding the hair in bread and butter. If the dog dies, the baby will recover. Lastly, in the 1850, one might consider “[p]utting a trout’s head into the mouth of the sufferer and…letting the trout the breathe into the child’s mouth.” I wonder if this one too had a symbolic association with asphyxiation, though I could be wrong be wrong about that; it was also thought that putting a live toad’s head in your mouth would transfer the sickness to the toad (170). You could also try a soup with nine(!) frogs in it, as was recorded in Yorkshire. For some reason, it was important that nobody saw the frogs as you carried them home and prepared the soup, especially, I imagine, the person who was sick (170).

Trout were considered an important curative, it seems, for whooping cough. An interesting one remembered in the 1930s suggested that drinking milk a trout has been made to swim in would be beneficial. You could also drown the fish in beer, which you then drank (162-3). Other lactic treatments for the “kink-cough” included drinking new milk from a wooden bowl made of holly (201), though ivy-wood bowls worked too (214), and, in the 1860s, “For the Hooping cough . . . let the patient drink some milk which a ferret has lapped” (148).

An especially innovative cure involved feeding afflicted children either roasted or fried mice. Also you could powder mice and put them into the patient’s morning and evening beverage (268), though, as Barbara Drescher observed at the panel, if you add water to powdered mice, you just get mice. Pliny, by the way, thought that serving a boiled mouse to a child cured bedwetting (267-8). Useful little guys.

There are comparatively few overtly religious superstitions. In a practice that went back to at least the 1770s, those afflicted with whooping cough would go to Catholic Chruches to drink out of the challice after Mass, even Jews, it is reported (93-4). Of course, if you don’t like going into churches, you can always fast on a Sunday and carry a sick child to three parishes (298).

A kid with whooping cough is a miserable creature indeed; how could you possibly make him more miserable? Well, how about forcing him to drink seawater at low tide? When he vomited, the sickness was thought to disperse on the tide with the sick (407).

Lastly, two superstitions that I simply can’t even imagine how they were supposed to work. Porridge made over a stream flowing from east to west was thought to be a better remedy than any old porridge (430). Finally, you could give the afflicted a piece of bread made by a woman who has successively married two men, both of whom shared the same last name; this is apparently a variation on the older tradition of taking the bread of a woman who did not have to change her surname when she married (277).

As you can see, the variety and strangeness of the folk cures for whooping cough reveal how horrible the disease was and suggests the lengths that people would go to to cure it. We don’t have these superstitions anymore. We don’t need them. We have safe and effective vaccinations. Adults who have not had a dTap (or tDap) booster in the last 10 years should plan to get vaccinated during their next checkup. Write that down. You don’t do it for yourself as much as you do if to keep clear the narrow airways of children too young to be vaccinated.

Congratulations to Maria Walters, Jamie Bernstein, and the original MoFo herself, Elyse Anders, for the Women Thinking Freely pertussis booster clinic at Dragon*Con. Special thanks to Bill (“The Amazing Bearded Man”) Atkinson of the CDC and the workers from the Cobb County Health Department who made it possible and to the folks at Dragon*Con who put aside space for us. Thanks to Sanofi who donated 100 doses of flu vaccine to the cause of public health, one dose of which I am currently enjoying with minimal autism–it was very popular and we were out quickly. We managed to give out 250 doses of whooping cough and flu vaccine. Next year, we’re going to rock it even harder!

Bob and Eve get shot at Dragon*Con. FLU shot!



Opie, Iona and Moira Tatem. Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.