The Language of Pseudoscience

May 28, 2011

On April 20th, I was a guest on Inside the Black Box, a science-themed radio show produced at Georgia Tech. Well, they have archived the show, which makes me very happy, because now I get to hear myself speak, which as you can imagine is something I enjoy immensely! Also, I am dying to know if they kept in a calculus joke I made that they thought might be too dirty for the archives. I know! I can make calculus positively obscene!

The topic is “The Language of Pseudoscience” (mp3 file) and it draws on a course that I taught in the Fall of 2010.


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.

Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!

*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.



Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

The Dr. Oz Show: The Price is Right of Medical Woo

April 28, 2011

Previously, on Skeptical Humanities:

We wrote about Dr. Steven Novella’s appearance on the Dr. Oz show (Dr. Novella describes his experience here; the first part of the show is available here). Of course, Dr. Novella appeared only in the first segment of the show, roughly the first ten minutes. So what happened on the rest of the show?

First a brief recap: Dr. Novella and the three physicians featured in the “Here’s what your doctor says” clips repeatedly pointed out that “alternative” therapies are not subject to the same kind of rigorous testing that conventional therapies are. By law, non-alternative medications have to be tested for efficacy and safety. Alternative therapies are not under the oversight of the FDA and do not have to meet the same standards. These concerns were never properly addressed.

In segment 2, after Dr. Novella has been whisked from the stage, Dr. Oz discusses online companies that use his name and image to sell their products without his consent. Dr. Oz could have used this fact to emphasize the risks of buying medical products online: many of the claims are deceptive. How can a consumer be sure the products are effective and safe and that the claims are valid? Instead, Dr. Oz just expresses irritation that they are using his name. He mentions one advertisement specifically that has a disclaimer at the bottom, which makes it technically legal. This company sells products “featured on the Dr. Oz show.” Oz notes, “There are times when you can be factually on target but be untruthful.” This statement is, of course, true, but I find it highly ironic for a number of reasons. In the first place, I wonder what Oz actually found untruthful about the statements in the ad. Is he annoyed that the ad suggests that he has endorsed this specific company and its products? Or is he suggesting that he has never endorsed the supplement in general? I’m assuming the former because they show a screenshot of an ad for Omega-3 krill oil pills, and later in the same show, Dr. Oz does enthusiastically promote fish oil supplements for heart health. So it seems the ad is correct when it says that a product similar to the one it sells has been both featured and endorsed on the Dr. Oz show.

In the second part of this segment, Dr. Oz promises to help viewers decide “what alternative products are safe for you.” Hurrah! He’s addressing one of the major concerns of science-based medical practitioners. Surely he’ll bring back Dr. Novella to help his viewers evaluate the claims of safety and efficacy made by producers of alternative therapies. Well, no. Instead he brings back Catherine Ulbricht, chief editor and co-founder of the National Standard Research Collaboration (their website), which Oz describes as the “gold standard of databases that study alternative medicine. We use it on the show all the time.”

Ulbricht begins by explaining how Natural Standard evaluates supplements. They “collect traditional information [and] historical data….” Hey, that sounds good to me! Of course, I’m a medievalist. I’m not sure folklore and anecdotes are the most reliable way to evaluate the safety and efficacy of medicine. To be fair, though, she says that they collect this information “as well as hardcore scientific evidence [and] clinical trials.” Their grading scale is based on that of the US Preventative Services Task Force. So, okay, that all sounds a bit better. So how do you know whether a supplement or therapy is safe?

1. How long has it been around? “You’re safer using therapies that have been around a long time, traditionally used in foods, grown in your own garden.” You know, the therapy of bleeding people to balance their humors was around for a long time. That doesn’t make it a safe or effective therapy. She notes that aspirin “is a good example because willow bark is a natural product that’s been around, you know, since forever, and it’s one of the mainstay therapies in conventional and alternative medicine.”

I’m not a medical expert, but it seems to me that she’s got this backwards. We know aspirin is safe and effective not because willow bark is natural (hemlock’s natural too) but because the chemical acetylsalicylic acid has been studied out the wazoo and found to be safe (with some risks) and effective. Aspirin is a drug and therefore regulated by the FDA.

Dr. Oz notes that a supplement that is available in food form and has been around for centuries is “probably not going to be catastrophically risky for you.” Now, perhaps I’m being unfair by parsing an off-the-cuff remark too closely, but certain words in that sentence bother me, specifically “probably,” “catastrophically” and “risky.” And while it may be true that these herbs are safe in food form, are they safe in supplement form? How much of the active ingredient do they contain? What other ingredients do they contain? Can we trust the companies that sell them? We don’t really know because they are not regulated by the FDA.

2. Evaluate the claims. This seems really important. They spend roughly 30 seconds on it. Ulbricht says that the more specific the claim, the more likely it is to be accurate. If it claims to be a panacea, don’t trust it: “There is no such thing as a magic pill.” That seems reasonable as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Yes, general, overarching claims are probably false, but many specific claims are false as well, or at least not backed by good, scientific evidence.

3. Determine safety. Ooh, really important. They don’t spend much time on this either. Ulbricht advises viewers to speak with their healthcare providers “even if they don’t know, they can use resources like Natural Standard and educate themselves and work with you to customize your care.” She also suggests looking at clinical data. This is good advice, although the plug for her own organization is perhaps a bit off-putting. But,again, the advice doesn’t go nearly far enough. How do people evaluate clinical data? Or find it?

Nowhere in this segment does either Oz or Ulbricht discuss potential toxicity or drug interactions. They don’t mention quality control.

At the end of the segment, Dr. Oz says “the only thing I endorse is information.” This is right after he and Ulbricht have endorsed fish oil, glucosamine and echinacea. He then endorses Natural Standard, telling his viewers to go to his site to find a link so they can get one free login at Natural Standard. Like many professional databases, Natural Standard is asubscription only resource. It seems possible, even likely, that some viewers, after using their free login, will choose to subscribe. Surely, Dr. Oz is endorsing not just information, but also a fee-based service. In short, what Dr. Oz says about endorsements seems to be “factually on target,” but misleading.

In the next segment Dr. Oz continues to endorse alternative supplements. The show calls this segment “Assistant of the Day.” I call it “The Price is Right of Medical Woo.” An audience member is invited to “come on down!” (okay, they don’t really say that). Dr. Oz is in scrubs; the woman is given a lab coat. The woman was presumably chosen because she suffers from headaches, and the segment focuses on headache triggers. I won’t discuss what he says about triggers as I don’t really have the necessary knowledge to evaluate all his claims. However, he does recommend two herbal supplements.

First, he says, “There are over-the-counter medications that work, but I happen to love this one.” “This one” is feverfew. According to Wikipedia, “It is hypothesized that by inhibiting the release of serotonin and prostaglandins, both of which are believed to aid the onset of migraines, feverfew limits the inflammation of blood vessels in the head. This would, in theory, stop the blood vessel spasm which is believed to contribute to headaches. Feverfew may also have GABAergic effects.” “Hypothesized,” “in theory,” “may.” Hmmm.

On screen, we see the following information: “FEVERFEW SUPPLEMENTS, 125 mg/daily, 50/60 tabs–online.” Sounds like an endorsement, doesn’t it? Granted, he’s not endorsing a specific seller or manufacturer, but he’s already highlighted some of the problems with online supplement companies (they’re not always honest). Why does Oz prefer feverfew to the medications that he admits work? Well, it “gets you off taking pills all the time for your headaches.” Except that it doesn’t. Feverfew doesn’t work like aspirin: you don’t take it when you get a headache. It’s used as a preventive measure rather than as a treatment when you get a headache. As Wikipedia states, “it might take four to six weeks before they become effective.” In other words, it doesn’t get you off taking pills all the time. You have to take the pills daily. If you suddenly stop taking them, you may suffer rebound headaches (this is also a problem with conventional headache treatments, especially migraine treatments). In addition, according to Wikipedia, parthenolide, one of the active ingredients in feverfew, “was also found in 2005 to induce cell death in leukemia cancer stem cells.” So, you are taking pills; you are taking chemicals; there may be risks; it hasn’t been studied as thoroughly as conventional treatments. And finally, “results vary widely among different feverfew supplements.” This is a huge problem with supplements and one that Oz does not address.

Oz recommends another herbal supplement that can be used symptomatically for headaches, especially exercised-induced headaches: “I think [it is] a wonderful solution.” What he’s talking about is “BUTTERBUR SUPPLEMENTS, 75mg/day. 50/60 tablets–online.”  There does seem to be some evidence that butterbur can be effective in preventing and relieving headaches, particularly migraines; however, as Wikipedia notes,

Butterbur naturally contains components called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. They are toxic to the liver and may cause cancers. The concentrations are often highest in the rhizomes and stalks, and lowest in the leaves, and may vary depending on where the plants are grown. Butterbur extract should be taken only when prepared by a reputable laboratory. Long-term health effects and interaction with other drugs have not been studied.

Does that sound like something Dr. Oz’s viewers should know about and be concerned about? It does to me. I suffer from migraines, and there are times when I would try anything that might relieve them. I’ve considered a small, portable guillotine.  People have suggested butterbur to me, and so I have looked into it. What I’ve found has concerned me. Apparently it doesn’t concern Dr. Oz, though, because he doesn’t mention these potentially lethal side-effects. And, again, you’ll note that the fact that the supplement industry is unregulated adds to the risk. You need to know what you are getting, and with supplements, you often don’t.

Dr. Oz offers no information that would help his viewers determine which manufacturers are reliable and which supplements are safe. He never mentions that “natural” substances can be deadly. Honestly, it might be better if Dr. Oz did endorse specific manufacturers. Then, at least, his viewers could assume (or hope) that they are really getting a safe product. Based on the information he provides in this episode, they don’t have the resources they need to make an informed decision.


CBS fails to fulfill the promise of broadcasting

April 14, 2011

Last week, I was in New York City, rocking the NECSS groove, and I made a point to go see one of my favorite murals, Barry Faulkner’s 1933 “Intelligence Awakens Mankind,” which adorns the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center, the old RCA (now GE) Building.

Barry Faulkners "Intelligence Awakens Mankind" 1933

It is a mural that expresses optimism about the dawning age of mass communication (it was the RCA Building…get it?). In the center, Intelligence, personified as a woman, sends out golden beams, or “thought”, via the Spoken Word and Written Word:


Radio waves, personified as angels, speed through the air carrying messages about fields such as “Philosophy,” “Biology,” and “Hygiene.”

Allegory! Its like telling two stories at once!

The information from the various fields of knowledge form a sort of force field, a protective barrier, if you will, around citizens:

See? Good information protects people!

Now that they people are protected, demons like “Ignorance” and “Fear” can’t reach them, and they explode into flames:

Suck it, Ignorance!

This, then, is the ideal that workers at NBC (who know occupy the old RCA Building) encounter every morning when they arrive at work.

No matter what NBC champions, enlightening and protecting people through knowledge, however, is simply not what CBS stands for.

Elyse Anders recently started a petition to ask CBS Outdoor to take down a highly deceptive advertisement on the JumboTron on 42nd street in Times Square that suggests vaccines are somehow risky. The man paying for the ad, Joe Mercola, is as far I can tell the worst self-described medical expert ever to not leave a roll of gauze in a patient.

How bad is Mercola? So bad that the FDA sent him a letter demanding that he stop making illegal claims. As far as I can tell, he’s not getting better at what he does. Stephen Barrett of has found that Mercola’s long history of fake medicine includes declarations that fluoride is unsafe. He opposes mammograms and amalgam fillings. Joe Mercola is a public health menace, and CBS is his willing and informed business partner.

CBS is now allowing this crank to put out misleading information that hurts children and the immunocompromised. CBS, in a real sense, is promoting things that only hurt its audience.

And they have not even responded to the torrent of letters protesting this filthy deal.

Vaccination is safe. It is effective. It is deeply unethical to take money to allow others to suggest otherwise. It is profit gained from a willingness to see children suffer. It is profit gained from a willingness to see people suffer from vaccine-preventable diseases.

It’s amazing how cheap CBS’s reputation was.

Writing letters (including a protest by the American Academy of Pediatricians) seems not to have an effect on CBS’s practices, so it’s time let the public know what CBS is doing.

Tweet @CBSOutdoor and @CBSTweet with the hashtag #VaxCBS to tell them how you feel about them running this ad. Maybe #justinbieber while you’re at it.

You might also write a letter to the relevant CBS executives:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

I appreciate it, folks.


The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory

April 12, 2011

The following is a talk that I gave this weekend at the Northeastern Modern Language Association conference in New Brunswick, NJ at a panel on Science and Literary Theory.

Several years ago, I took a 19th-century American literature seminar during my PhD coursework. During that class, each student in turn would guide the discussion of the week’s reading. One week, a student working toward his Masters was leading a fairly typical class, expounding at some length on the finer points of Moby Dick, and though I don’t remember the specifics of my fellow student’s conclusion, I remember that he offered a baroque hypothesis about the politics of race and gender and misrepresentation. Even though he had brought up numerous interesting observations about the text, I’m not sure I really had any idea what my friend was talking about, but I was politely professional and said nothing. When the student had finished and received polite applause, the instructor, an Americanist with whom I agreed on almost nothing, asked the one question that had been haunting me ever since my undergraduate studies of literature and culture had taken a theoretical bent in graduate school.

“Do you really believe all that?” he asked.

I can’t think of a less polite thing to ask a graduate student, or, honestly, a more important question.

I’m a relative latecomer to the subject of the so-called “science wars.” I suspect that a lot of what I have to say has been covered by any number of philosophers, scientists and academic pundits. I tend to agree with the severest criticism directed at many of the major figures in theory, the type of criticism leveled by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their Higher Superstition. I think that the Sokal Hoax offers an important warning that academics in the humanities fail to heed at the expense of disciplinary credibility. The hoax, you’ll remember, was perpetrated by physicist Alan Sokal against the postmodernist journal Social Text in 1996. Social Text published Sokal’s article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Saturated with scientific absurdities, the article aped postmodernist jargon, political posturing, and rhetorical habits. The fact that something which, had it appeared on the Internet (presumably in ALL CAPS), would have been blasted as purest pseudoscience, had appeared in a professional academic journal produced a scandal that was about as polarizing as any you are likely to find in the academy. The furor over what were widely taken to be the broader implications of the hoax, that literary and cultural studies is vacuous, deceptive and infantile suggests that Sokal had chomped down hard on an exposed nerve.

As I prepared my thoughts on this topic, I was struck by how similar at first glance the similarity between literary /slash/ cultural theory and the preparadigmatic state of the natural sciences that Thomas Kuhn describes in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The state of literary theory is one in which practitioners are “able to take no common body of belief for granted” and “each writer…[feels] forced to build his field anew from its foundations” (13). Certainly, a major contributing factor to this state of affairs is that the proper object of Capital-T-Theory remains, despite, more than 30 years of practice, undefined. Possible candidates include literature and other communicative acts, social structures like institutions, the nature of power, systems of meaning, and the process of making meaning. Now might this might not be such a large problem when you are comparing different theories—certain texts which raise questions that postcolonial studies are better equipped to answer than, say, fat studies, which is now apparently a thing. But even within the various schools of thought, the proper object of study varies. Take, for instance, the range of possibilities in psychoanalytic theory. I have seen psychoanalytic literary criticism directed at authors, works, characters in the works, even entire cultures. Once, and I swear I’m not making this up, I saw an author claim that Much Ado About Nothing had analyzed him (Krims, introduction xv). I mean, what does that even mean? Professional psychiatry, with the exception of a dwindling cult of hardcore Freudians, has long recognized that Freud’s understanding of the mind was fundamentally flawed.

Now, I write and research about pseudoscience and other forms of pseudoscholarship, and as I was reading and reviewing commentaries on the state of Theory, some patterns emerged, which worryingly (for reasons I will explain later) are informed by my other work. The factions of theory, including identity (including feminist, race and queer), Marxist, psychoanalytic and deconstruction camps share numerous characteristics of the type of diseased, self-perpetuating thinking typical of conspiracy theorists and other demonstrably flawed systems of thought.

The first way in which literary and cultural theory behaves like a conspiracy theory (and other forms of wishful pseudoscholarship) is how very often the absence of evidence, or even direct counterevidence, is taken as evidence for the phenomenon or theory in question. By this logic, the more counterevidence a critic produces, the more the more powerful the theory appears to become. In the lore of UFO cover-ups, the overwhelming lack of evidence in favor of the hypothesis that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin, much less piloted by aliens, is taken by the advocates of “disclosure” as positive evidence of the size of the conspiracy. When you present UFO theorists with evidence that no, aliens did not crash in Roswell, and that balloons with classified instruments designed to detect Soviet nuclear tests did, they reply that the documents and testimony is forged, and they walk away with a sense that you have only confirmed what they have been talking about.

Numerous commentators reflecting on the state of critical theory have found that this applies to various schools of theory. Jonathan Gottschall sums the problem up nicely:

Psychoanalysts have argued that citing evidence against their belief system is quite transparently–in itself–evidence for that system; criticism of Marxist or neo-Marxist notions can be dismissed as craven attempts to bolster the critic’s economic interests; and any criticism of the so-called race-class-gender-sexuality movements can be brushed off as spasms of rightist political reflexes […]. While these prophylactics against negative evidence have been potent, and while they help explain the impressive resilience of the dominant paradigm, they have also been primary obstacles to the generation of reliable knowledge. (39)

Embedded within this commentary is the assumption that theory means to be reliable, or at least in some sense apply to the real world. However, if there is to something to be saved of high theory, I believe that theorists must surrender this presumption of practical utility.

Perhaps the most direct contributor to the Sokal Hoax was the fact that these schools of theory have their own, alternative experts. This seems directly analogous to a group of 9/11 Truthers I have been corresponding with lately. One has told me, “Listen to the experts.” By experts, of course, he means his experts, who are an architect, a retired theologian and a physicist who happened to participate in one of the biggest science scandals of the 20th century, the cold fusion brouhaha of the late 1980s. As in the Truth community, certain groups of theorists have gurus whose credibility is left untouched by deep methodological and evidentiary flaws that would be unacceptable in any legitimate discipline, and whose work is immediately recognized as not just worthless, but misleading, by people who have genuine expertise. Take, for instance, Brian Vickers’ assessment of two of the largest superstars:

Freud’s work is notoriously speculative, a vast theoretical edifice elaborated with a mere pretense of corroboration, citing ‘clinical observations’ which turn out to be false, with contrary evidence suppressed, data manipulated, building up over a forty-year period a self-obscuring, self-protective mythology. The system of Derrida, although disavowing systematicity, is based on several unproven assumptions about the nature of language which are supported by a vast expanding web of idiosyncratic terminology (249).

These pseudo-experts misuse scientific terminology for opportunistic, rhetorical purposes, which I suspect are largely to lend them authority in the eyes of those who do not know better. And, let’s face it, this led to some of the most extravagant and embarrassing proclamations identified by Gross and Leavitt.

Conspiracy theories and critical theories also resemble one another in that the two are accompanied with a sense of righteousness or political commitment, that the theorist in some ways is crusading against an oppressive force. This is especially true in what Gottschall calls the “liberationist paradigm,” in which “Objectivity [is] just a synonym for white male subjectivity” (5). A colleague of mine who works on interregnum Caribbean slavery narratives found that Irish-Catholic males were forcibly impressed into indefinite periods of servitude and brought to tropical plantations in chains under Cromwell. When she named this, rightly I think, as slavery, a tenured colleague of hers who was a committed postcolonialist accused her of usurping the exclusivity of African slavery narratives in Caribbean studies. The correct answer to this, of course, is, “You’re damn right I am, if the African narrative alone doesn’t fit the facts,” but this is not a statement conducive to professional advancement.

Indeed, a lot the schools of theory seem to stem from popular political movements. One of the funny things about UFO contactees is how often the message that they receive from their extraterrestrial contacts are seemingly tailored to the relevant political movements and concerns of the day. During the Cold War, the benevolent Space Brothers warned us about the dangers of nuclear weapons; after the Cold War, they warned us about polluting the environment. It is probably not a coincidence that ecocriticism arrived at about the same time that the little green men started lecturing us about the importance of going green, as it were. Indeed, ecocritic Simon Estok says that “ecocriticism has distinguished itself, debates notwithstanding, first by the ethical stand it takes, its commitment to the natural world as an important thing rather than simply as an object of thematic study, and, secondly, by its commitment to making connections.” The editors of the ecocrit collection, Reading the Earth, argue that:

Implicit (and often explicit) in much of this new criticism is a call for cultural change. Ecocriticism is not just a means of analyzing nature in literature; it implies a move toward a more biocentric worldview, an extension of ethics, a broadening of humans’ conception of global community to include nonhuman life forms and the physical environment. Just as feminist and African American literary criticism call for a change in culture […] so too does ecological literary criticism advocate for cultural change by examining how the narrowness of our culture’s assumptions about the natural world has limited our ability to envision an ecologically sustainable human society. (qtd. in Estok)

In much the same way that conspiracy theories are fueled by political ideals, take, for instance the 9/11 Truthers who are absolutely convinced that they are exposing great evils, no matter how silly, and the anticommunists of the Cold War, who were convinced that they were doing no less than saving freedom itself, so too have critical theorists seen themselves as waging a good war on behalf of oppressed people, and in the case just mentioned, saving human society from itself.

A further point of similarity between literary theory and conspiracy theory is that they seem to come awareness of unknown truths about the ‘real’ nature of things through meticulous—some would say hypermyopic—attention to minutiae. For instance, take the typical JFK assassination buff. He can tell you about every little bit of evidence, the results of every single test, every little strange particle of nuance of evidence relevant and irrelevant to the events in Dealey Plaza. He is doing, essentially, a super-hyper close reading of the narrative of the assassination. The problem, of course, is that he has a bad grasp of the relative importance of various pieces of evidence to the narrative as a whole. On the basis of that extremely close reading, like the deconstructionist, he often stresses those elements that are external to the narrative. At the same time, both conspiracy theorists and literary theorists seem to evince a belief in the inevitability of political change caused by the simple fact that revealing that truth.

One of the characteristics of academic theory that allowed Sokal to convincingly impersonate serious theorists was deploying the specialized language of theory. While this is, as Kuhn recognizes, perhaps an inevitable part of professionalization and establishment of expertise in the empirical sciences, to the point that even specialists in the same academic departments might not even be able to communicate easily, in the case of theory (and especially in deconstruction) one wonders whether or specialists can communicate at all, as the verbal documents that they generate are at times grammatically correct, meaningless sentences rendered impenetrable with jargon. Edward Ervin’s Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, started as a database designed to help him clarify for himself the terminology of Lacan’s seminars, but as he later reported:

As I tried to make sense of Lacan’s bizarre rhetoric, it became clearer to me that the obfuscatory language did not hide a deeper meaning but was in fact a direct manifestation of the confusion inherent in Lacan’s own fault. But whereas most of Lacan’s commentators preferred to ape the master’s style and perpetuate the obscurity, I wanted to dissipate the haze and expose whatever was underneath. […] Ironically, it was this attempt to open Lacanian theory up to criticism that played a major role in leading me to reject Lacanian theory itself. (42)

This use of language seems to me to be more in line with mysticism or possibly cult-speak than with conspiracy theory as such. It turns out that difference may simply be to deconstruction what “engrams” are to Scientologists, insofar as they serve as markers for members of in-group members and out-group members. Obfuscatory language does not shield theory from criticism; it shields it from legitimacy and relevance.

There is some encouraging news, of course, and this is that the practitioners of theory who fall into the category I’ve outlined comparatively few in number—you rarely bump into someone outside of a specialty journal who espouses wholehearted devotion to a single school of thought. Most literary and cultural criticism appropriates only what is relevant to the topic at hand and disregards the rest. Nonetheless, the theorists whose work is taken to be representative of the various schools of criticism tend to be more sensationalistic. A peculiar feature of much theory is a tacit appreciation of its mere “boldness,” as if claims of radical destabilization are laudable in themselves. True, we have found it desirable and enlightening to reexamine our underlying assumptions, and this has led to genuinely enlightened, more informed views on issues such as sexuality and race, but it does not follow that destabilisation in itself is desirable. It is not clear what the impact of intellectuals championing these causes is on society’s perception of sexuality, gender, race or ecology. Nonetheless, when theorists declaim on subject about which they know nothing, they devalue the work of other, more responsible scholars through an unfair guilt by association.

So, what’s to be done; how do we avoid another Sokal Hoax? Wouldn’t it be great and ironic if I yelled enthusiastically, “REVOLUTION!?”

This is an important question, as the humanities are chronically starved for funding. The answer depends on how literary theorists decide to describe their job, whether they see themselves as producers of knowledge who are developing ever more accurate and detailed understandings of the nature and working of literature and culture, or if they see themselves primarily as artists. In the first case, if theorists decide, that they want, to use Gottschall’s phrase: “the ability to systematically and decisively narrow out allotted portion of possibility space–to zoom in toward truth in the immense multidimensional hyperspace of error and vacuity” (9), they have failed.

Gottschall makes an intriguing proposal about how to move forward with the project of reducing error in literary studies, and that is plying statistical sampling and analysis to literary texts. He points out that the quantification of social phenomena has always met with popular resistance, but it has revealed underlying order to any number of social phenomena. Why should literature be any exception? I think that there are two major obstacles, neither of which is insurmountable or easy. The first may be described as inertia, an unwavering devotion to the notion that there are some things like literature can’t be quantified. This, of course, is merely a bald assertion, and without trials to examine whether or not such a project would be profitable, there is simply no basis for making that claim.

The second obstacle to the successful completion of the project is that the infrastructure of literary studies, as it currently exists, is not designed to produce scholars of the type that Gottschall proposes. It is designed to perpetuate theory as it already is. The problem with this is that programs in literary theory—or cultural studies writ large—do not have the expertise in statistics needed to become this sort of scholar at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As a result, I am afraid that it will take a rather substantial overhaul of theory programs to even begin down this road. That or interdisciplinary training through other departments.

One reform, I think, immediately available to all departments, and one that I believe is fundamental to improving the standing of theory, is raising awareness of cognitive biases and their ability to corrupt research. One of the most damaging and pervasive flaws in modern humanistic scholarship is the lack of awareness or concern for confirmation bias, which is a dangerous mental habit that determines what one accepts as relevant evidence. It is the propensity for people to seek out confirmatory instead of disconfirmatory evidence. For example, when you are posed with the question, “Is Ted an extrovert?” you are likely to ask questions like, “Does he have friends? Or does he like going out on weekends?” instead of paying attention to the fact that he plays chess and reads, the types of things introverts are likely to do. In life we unconsciously notice and value elements of the world that confirm our worldview to the exclusion of those that don’t. Numerous swindles depend on this very human propensity, and currently, when we are trained in theory we are being trained to give confirmation bias free range. When confronted with a mass of data, say, a novel or a culture, and you are able to forgive yourself for squinting a little bit, it is very, very easy to find evidence for anything. If your academic kink happens to be imperial conquest, you’ll find imperial conquest. If it’s patriarchy, you’ll find patriarchy. If it’s pandas, you’ll find pandas. And we don’t pay any attention to this tendency. I searched the entire MLA database for the phrase “confirmation bias” and it appears only once.

Another vital element of a program of reform that will lead to literary theory becoming a reliable tool for discerning the real world will be to replace scientific pseudoexperts like Freud and Lacan with actual experts in the relevant empirical sciences, especially in the science of the mind. This will require some additional training, and I’m not sure it’s the type of training that could reasonably be confined to a graduate education, but if you are going to invest the time in writing a dissertation about the products of the human mind, you cannot but improve your work by informing it with an awareness of the state of the empirical science. And when you address scientific matters you need to understand the limitations of that science as well. When you are talking about indeterminacy, you need to be aware that this is a property that is only useful when it is applied to the world of particles. You may employ indeterminacy as an artistic metaphor, of course, but when you do so, you must not mistake your metaphor for the real thing or imagine that because you have used the metaphor that you have somehow altered particle physics. When you critique the content of science, or any field of knowledge, as many theorists have, you need to address the relevant issues at the level of the experts, and this is very, very difficult without specialist training. It reminds me of a situation I believe Carl Sagan described when he looked into the claims of the pseudoscientist and psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsy, that Jupiter ejected the planet Venus and that a series of close passes by Venus to Earth caused a number of the miracles described in the Bible. Religious scholars scoffed at Velikovsky’s interpretation of biblical events but were impressed by his astronomical knowledge. Scientists thought that the biblical stuff was ok, but thought his astronomical proclamations were ridiculous.

The other option is to surrender pretentions to objectivity and describe theorists as artists. Art makes no claims on objective reality, and some very artful and elegant readings of texts can come out of even the most badly flawed pseudoscience. I think that it would be folly to not consider an Oedipal reading of Hamlet, even if there is no evidence of an Oedipus complex in the real world. Exciting art can be made when you filter a work of literature through a novel perspective. In doing so, you are doing what artists have done for ages, drawing on and responding to the zeitgeist. I consider that project to be akin to the various repinterpretations by Dali and Picasso of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, wherein something of the original artwork remains, but the style and aesthetic concerns of the modern artists dominate the interpretation. Take the Freudian example. In psychoanalytic criticism, a theorist may in practice substitute any symbol for any other symbol. This is immensely liberating for the imaginative, creative mind. But one should not imagine that the substitutions that the theorist makes are anything but the products of their own mind. So, if theory and interpretation abandon pretenses of objective analysis and embrace the posture that they are using science as a metaphor, we will do much to clarify the work that literary and cultural critics are accomplishing.

Something needs to change. High theory, as it is currently conceived and practiced, is a celebration of disordered thinking. To prevent further embarrassment to the profession and improve the quality of our work, we need to hold our theorists to high standards; and when it comes to matters of science, we need to hold them to the standards of the field they mean to critique. We need to raise the scientific literacy of our humanities faculties and educate our students about confirmation bias. Finally, when we deploy science as a metaphor, we need to frankly acknowledge it as such, just a metaphor. Thank you.


Postscript: After I gave this talk, a guy came up to me and said, “My dissertation adviser was one of the editors at Social Text. Oops! Heehee.  (I almost typed Sokal Text–eek!). He did in fact say that the editors schooled themselves in science afterwards, which is encouraging.


Estok, Simon C. “A Report Card on Ecocriticism.” AUMLA : Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association 96 (Nov 2001): 220-238. Online at <;

Evans, Dylan. “From Lacan to Darwin.” The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Eds., Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. 34–55.

Gottschall, Jonathan. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Gross, Paul R. and Leavitt, Norman. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.

Krims, Marvin Bennett. The Mind According to Shakespeare: Psychoanalysis in the Bard’s Writing. Westport: Praeger, 2006. Introduction, xv.

Vickers, Brian. “Masters and Demons.” Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Eds. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 247-270.

Is the Voynich Manuscript the Product of an Alien Intelligence?

February 19, 2011

Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”

Already wrong, but I’ll get there.

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.

According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.

It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section,  biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”

A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.

In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!

Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.

He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!

As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which  he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:

The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:

Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…

If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:

Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.

But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.

In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.

It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.

By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.

In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.

Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).

The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!

A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)

A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.

Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!

On vellum.

In the 15th century.

The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”

Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.



Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.

Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.

Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.

Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.

Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.

Shakespeare and Skeptoid

February 8, 2011

In a recent episode of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning answered questions from students around the world. One student, Stephen from California, asked Dunning’s opinion about the Shakespeare authorship question. Briefly, Dunning concludes that “all available evidence supports Shakespeare as a real living author, and the only support for the opposing viewpoint is supposition.” He also notes that the authorship question “may be worthy of its own complete Skeptoid episode.”

I agree with Dunning’s conclusions, and think Shakespeare does warrant an episode to himself. If Dunning does choose to devote an episode to the authorship question, however, I hope he does better research and uses better sources than he did in this episode. The two sources he cites in this episode are from those two great literary heavyweights, Scientific American and*. Why must skeptics appeal to science even when discussing the humanities? The Scientific American article was written by Michael Shermer, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Biology, a Master’s in Experimental Psychology and a Ph.D. in the History of Science. He also seems to want to make history into a science: “But reasonable doubt should not cost an author his claim, at least not if we treat history as a science instead of as a legal debate.” He was responding to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ use of legalese in making his argument for the Earl of Oxford. But history is neither of these: it is its own field with its own methods and standards for scholarship. It may be messier than science and more open to interpretation, but that is largely unavoidable. It can’t be fixed by trying to make it into a science.

In introducing the article, Dunning says:

Perhaps the most compelling reason to accept Shakespeare as the real author is his unique and recognizable writing style, which does not match that of the authors to which his works have been attributed by doubters. And this is not merely an unreliable, subjective opinion: It’s backed by hard science.

Again there is a suggestion that the humanities are only trustworthy when science is involved. Of course science can be a useful tool in literary studies. In this case, literary scholars used computational stylistics to detect Shakespeare’s hand in various works. That is to say, they used a computer program to compare Shakespeare’s diction, syntax, etc. to other writers from the period. For instance, a scholar would look at a work whose authorship is disputed and use the computer program to compare it to works by many different authors. The frequency with which certain typical features of a certain author appear in the disputed work suggests a likely attribution.

Obviously, a computer can sift through a huge amount of data at great speed. Still, it builds on work done for years by literary scholars who have painstakingly studied the language and usage of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In addition, it is wildly optimistic to assume that such computer analyses will actually settle many questions. Someone else is bound to say, “Oh yeah, well my computer program said Shakespeare wrote this unattributed play.” Indeed, some of the conclusions drawn by the group headed by Arthur F. Kinney, director of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst, have already been questioned.  Kinney, for example, claims in the article cited by Dunning: “I have now proven that Shakespeare is part-author of Arden of Faversham. They guessed that in the 19th century but no one would believe it in the 20th century. Now we know.” He makes this argument at greater length in Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Sir Brian Vickers, however, has argued, based on his own computer analysis of the play, that Thomas Kyd is the sole author.**

Based on the thumbnail descriptions of studies in the article, some of the conclusions just seem…odd. For instance, in regard to the play Sir Thomas More, we learn that

Timothy Watt at last proved that Hand D in the manuscript of a play called The Book of Sir Thomas More is Shakespeare’s own handwriting and so extends examples of his writing past the seven signatures which alone have been attributed to him.

In the first place, there are only six signatures that are more or less universally regarded as genuinely Shakespearean (I assume the seventh refers to a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. If that signature were considered genuine, it would prove that Shakespeare did indeed own at least one book. Although a number of eminent scholars have accepted the signature as likely genuine, the attribution is still in question). Moreover, how could a computer program that evaluates authors’ styles conclude that the passage was in Shakespeare’s handwriting? It seems, based on the article in Computers, Shakespeare and the Mystery of Authorship, that Watt concluded that Shakespeare was the author of the Hand D passage. At the end of the article, Watt argues that “[s]ince the nature of the manuscript indicates an author at work–correcting and amending along the way–rather than a scribe making a fair copy,” if Shakespeare is the author of the passage, it logically must be in his hand. In other words, the handwriting isn’t being used as evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship; Shakespeare’s authorship is used as evidence of his handwriting. At any rate, the study has not quelled questions about Sir Thomas More.

Another assertion in the article concerns one of Shakespeare’s putative sources:

Kevin Petersen noted that although people think Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne’s skepticism in his work from Richard II through Hamlet to The Tempest, and was the source of his skepticism in parts of many of his plays, in fact there is no indication of any Montaigne – in French or in the popular English translation.

This article did not make it into the book, so it is hard to judge. It is possible that the brief description misrepresents the argument, but, as stated, it just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, while many of Montaigne’s essays have been suggested as sources for Shakespeare, very few of them are widely accepted. Many of the most compelling arguments for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare concern The Tempest. In 1781, Edward Cappel suggested that Gonzalo’s “commonwealth” speech in Act 2, scene 1 of The Tempest very closely resembles a passage in John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals:”

I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty–
Seb.                                       Yet he would be king on’t.
Ant.  The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gon.  All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Seb.  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
Ant.  None, man, all idle–whores and knaves.
Gon.  I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.  (2.1.145-66)

Here is Montaigne’s description of life among the Brazilian cannibals:

It is a nation…that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them. (“Of the Cannibals,” Bk 1, ch. 30 of The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, tr. by John Florio. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 230-31)

No one claims that Shakespeare got his ideas for Gonzalo’s commonwealth from Montaigne–they were not original to Montaigne. It is the way those ideas are expressed: primarily in negatives. Neither Montaigne nor Shakespeare describes his Utopia in terms of what it is or what it has, but rather of what it is not and what it doesn’t have. In addition, many of the details are the same. And you do not need a computer program to point out the verbal parallels. Indeed, if a computer were to tell me that the verbal parallels did not exist, I’m afraid I would have to disbelieve it.

Computational stylistics is a useful tool, but it is naive to think that science can definitively answer questions that literary studies have failed to answer.  It can lend credence to arguments that Shakespeare had a hand in a particular work (or that a collaborator had a hand in a work generally attributed to Shakespeare alone), and it can question other attributions. It is less useful in the argument that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. A particular disputed work, such as Arden of Faversham or Sir Thomas More, can be compared to Shakespeare’s acknowledged works, but when the entire corpus is disputed, to what can we compare it? One of the anti-Shakespeareans’ main arguments is that we have no works that can be definitively attributed to Shakespeare (this is not true, of course, but that’s the argument). Admittedly, we can compare “Shakespeare’s” works to those by Oxford, Bacon and Marlowe, but, with the exception of Marlowe, none of the main candidates wrote in the genres for which Shakespeare is known, which makes comparison more difficult. Not impossible, of course. Many idiosyncrasies are likely to be the same, regardless if the poet is writing drama or lyric poetry, but it’s certainly not going to be good enough to satisfy Oxfordians (not that anything is).


*This article is taken word for word from a press release from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

**I have not yet read this article (I have ordered it from Inter-Library Loan), so I am basing my interpretation of it on second-hand accounts.

Further Reading:

Craig, Hugh and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Hodgen, Margaret. “Montaigne and Shakespeare Again,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16 (1952-53): 23-42.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibals.” The Essays. Tr. John Florio. 1603. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 227-238).

Paster, Gail Kern. “Montaigne, Dido, and The Tempest: ‘How Came that Widow in?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 91-94.

Prosser, Elaine. “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and the Rarer Action,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 261-64.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford UP, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. “Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer.” Times Literary Supplement 18 Apr. 2008: 13-15.

10:23 campaign appears on NPR

February 8, 2011

Glad to see it! Sorry I missed it. But this weekend I came across something that is not even homeopathy. You’ll hear about it.  Teehee.


The Week in Conspiracy (3 Feb 2011)

February 3, 2011

This weekend, I will be attending TruthCon, which brings together all sorts of energy healers and people interested in UFO disclosure and 9/11 conspiracy theorists and…oh, everything. It’s like a paradise for me and will likely be the most interesting conference I attend this year (all love to NeMLA and NECSS, btw!). Regardless, since I am going to be really busy this weekend, I thought I would write up the week that was weak a little early.

Forget two weeks ago. And last week. And three weeks ago. THIS week, without a doubt is the most important week in the history of the human species, if conspiracy theorists are right.

Conspiracy theory of the week:

Honorary conspiracy theory of the week:

Not a real conspiracy theory, but my brother totally got me with a facebook post about the GIGANTIC STORM OF DOOM (which, in the end, never materialized in St. Louis):

“NEWS FLASH!! Area Man Convinced Blizzard The Work Of Muslim Extremists: “I don’t know how exactly, but these fellas have found a way to manipulate our weather patterns. They really will stop at nothing to disrupt our American way of life.”

Well played, sir. Well played.

And that’s it for now, friends. I’m off into the breach!