Monthly Archives: April 2009

Let’s Try That Again — Reflections on Reincarnation

I must admit that I am skeptical about reincarnation for a wide variety of reasons.reincarnation The existence of a non-material personal essence is problematic in light of the latest discoveries in neuroscience. The evidence that has been offered of children having remarkably accurate memories of “past lives” is extremely hard to verify as untainted by adults. The lack of any suggested mechanism for how reincarnation actually works is a problem. And there is the simple issue of math. If you want to know what I mean by that last statement (and to read about one of the classic “past-life” recollection stories), read on…

Here’s the reprint of an article by Ben Radford from Live Science:


By Benjamin Radford, LiveScience’s Bad Science Columnist

posted: 27 April 2009 11:33 am ET

Is each of us inhabited by a soul that has lived previous lives earlier in history? It’s a fascinating idea, and one that many people believe, including actress Shirley MacLaine and the Dalai Lama (himself the fourteenth incarnation of a Buddhist Master).

As one might imagine, scientifically proving that a person lived before being born is no easy task. Good evidence might come in the form of unique details and information about their past lives that no one else knows. Even better would be information that solves disappearances: For example, if a person claims to have been Amelia Earhart or Jimmy Hoffa (or, years from now, Natalee Holloway) in a previous life, they could presumably clear up the mysteries surrounding their fates.

Though millions of people believe in reincarnation, very few actually claim to have memories of past lives. Usually such recollections emerge during a controversial (and largely discredited) psychotherapy technique called “past life regression.”

In fact, that’s how the “best case” for reincarnation came about.

Bridey Murphy

The most celebrated case of a person claiming to have lived a past life is that of Bridey Murphy. Bridey was a 19th century Irishwoman that Colorado woman Virginia Tighe claimed to have been in a previous life.

Tighe’s amazing claim came about in 1952 during a session with an amateur hypnotist named Morey Bernstein. Under hypnosis — and through an Irish accent — Tighe related memories of her previous existence in the early 1800s in Cork, Ireland, including being born on Dec. 20, 1789, her life and marriage, and death in 1864.

At first glance, Tighe’s story seemed very compelling. She had never been to Ireland and presumably could not have known many of the details she remembered except by having lived them a century earlier. Bernstein wrote a best-selling book about the case, and Bridey Murphy became a worldwide sensation.

A closer look

The story of Bridey Murphy began to collapse when investigative journalists went to Ireland to verify her story.

While a few general statements were proven true, the researchers found virtually no evidence for the vast majority of Tighe’s “memories.” There were no records of a Bridey Murphy who had been born or died on those dates; the people Tighe said she encountered as Bridey Murphy never existed, including her husband. And so on.

It seems that Bernstein and his publishers, in their rush to exploit the case for fame and profit, had neglected to check Bridey Murphy’s account against the historical facts. It was later revealed that as a young child Tighe had spent time with an Irish immigrant neighbor (not coincidentally named Bridie Murphy), from whom she likely picked up a few details about Ireland, along with an exposure to an Irish accent.

Few people believe Tighe purposely faked the story; more likely, she simply (and unconsciously) created it using her imagination and scraps of early memories.

Decades of psychological research has demonstrated that people under hypnosis can create realistic, detailed, first-person accounts of events they never experienced. [Scientists have shown that belief in reincarnation is likely tied to memory errors.] The person comes to believe their own fantastic fictions, often under the encouragement of misguided therapists.

The same psychological process helps explain many “eyewitness” alien abduction stories.

Some simple math also throws cold water on the idea of past lives, if each person has a soul or spirit that moves through time between generations and centuries. The best estimate is that there are currently nearly 7 billion people on earth, yet around 1800 there were fewer than 1 billion living people. Where did the “new” 6 billion souls come from during the past 200 years? Did people during our great-great grandfathers’ time each have six souls inside them?  (And, of course, if people’s memories of past lives are accurate, it’s puzzling how more than one person can claim to have been famous figures like Jesus, Marilyn Monroe, and Napoleon.)

If the “best case” for reincarnation falls apart under close examination, it seems unlikely that those of modern houswives claiming to be Joan of Arc or Cleopatra have any better validity. There is a cottage industry surrounding reincarnation; “experts” on the topic sell books, give seminars, and offer “past life regression” to gullible patients. Though it seems that souls come and go, reincarnation stories will always be with us.


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The Hand of God – 17,000 light years from earth

If you haven’t seen the photo of the Chandra Nebula recently released by NASA, you’ll want to take a look below. It’s simply stunning in its own right, and it’s a great example of “pareidolia” — a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. The nebula is now commonly being referred to as ‘the hand of God.’ But God’s hand is some 17,000 light years away from earth. And here I always thought he had the whole wide world in his hands.

I’ve also included a reprint of a Yahoo news article about it below for those of you who want to find out a bit more about the science side of it.

The Chandra Nebula

The Chandra Nebula

COSMIC HAND REACHES FOR THE LIGHT – Saturday, April 4, 2009 –

Tiny and dying but still-powerful stars called pulsars spin like crazy and light up their surroundings, often with ghostly glows. So it is with PSR B1509-58, which long ago collapsed into a sphere just 12 miles in diameter after running out of fuel.

And what a strange scene this one has created.

In a new image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, high-energy X-rays emanating from the nebula around PSR B1509-58 have been colored blue to reveal a structure resembling a hand reaching for some eternal red cosmic light.

The star now spins around at the dizzying pace of seven times every second — as pulsars do — spewing energy into space that creates the scene.

Strong magnetic fields, 15 trillion times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field, are thought to be involved, too. The combination drives an energetic wind of electrons and ions away from the dying star. As the electrons move through the magnetized nebula, they radiate away their energy as X-rays.

The red light actually a neighboring gas cloud, RCW 89, energized into glowing by the fingers of the PSR B1509-58 nebula, astronomers believe.

The scene, which spans 150 light-years, is about 17,000 light years away, so what we see now is how it actually looked 17,000 years ago, and that light is just arriving here.

A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

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The World’s Funniest Joke – Quirkology Strikes Again

In a previous post, I shared with you some of the quirky facts I learned from reading Richard Wiseman’s excellent book, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. This time I want to share with you some of the contenders from a chapter entitled, “The Scientific Search for The World’s Funniest Joke.”

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

In this chapter, Wiseman discusses the psychology of humour and describes the study he conducted in trying to find the world’s funniest joke. Wiseman acknowldeges that humour is very contextual and cultural, so there really is no joke that the whole world would find funny, but the the study did end up designating one joke as the funniest to the greatest number of people who participated in the study (garnering 55% of the vote).

Through his research, Wiseman was able to discern three factors that create the funniest jokes:

  1. Top jokes create a sense of superiority for those who find it funny – the more superior people feel, the harder they laugh.
  2. We laugh at the aspects of life that cause us the most anxiety.
  3. Jokes are funny when there is a strong incongruity between the setup and the punch line – the accompanying feeling of surprise makes us laugh.

Now, you are going to have to buy (or borrow) the book to find out which joke was voted as the funniest, but I thought I would give you a few of the ones that I found funny in this chapter. See what you think. And please feel free to contribute what YOU think is the funniest joke you know.

So, in no particular order…

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were going camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up and said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”

Holmes said: “And what do you deduce from that?”

Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there . And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

A guy goes to the hospital for a check-up. After weeks of tests, a doctor comes to see him and says that he has some good news and some bad news.

“What’s the bad news?” asks the man.

“I am afraid that we think you have a very rare and incurable disease,” says the doctor.

“Oh my God, that’s terrible,” says the man. “What’s the good news?”

“Well,” replies the doctor, “we are going to name it after you.”

A patient says to her psychiatrist: “Last night I made a Freudian slip; I was having dinner with my husband and wanted to say, ‘Could you please pass the butter.’ But what I said instead was: ‘You son of a bitch, you ruined my life.’ “

A guy goes to his priest and says, “I feel terrible. I am a doctor and I have slept with some of my patients.”

The priest looks concerned, and then tries to make the man feel better by saying, “You aren’t the first doctor to sleep with patients and you won’t be the last. Perhaps you shouldn’t feel so guilty.”

“You don’t understand,” says the man, “I’m a vet.”

A guy goes to the doctor and has a checkup. At the end of the examination, he turns to the doctor and asks how long he has to live. The doctor replies, “Ten.”

The guy looks confused and says, “Ten what? Years? Months? Weeks?”

The doctor replies, “Nine, eight, seven…”

A man dies and his wife telephones her local newspaper and says, “I would like to print the following obituary: Bernie is dead.”

The man at the newspaper pauses, and says, “Actually, for the same price you could print six words.”

The woman replies, “Oh, okay, can I go with: Bernie is dead. Toyota for sale.”

A shipwreck survivor washes up on the beach of an island and is surrounded by a group of warriors.

“I’m done for,” the man cries in despair.

“No, you are not,” comes a booming voice from the heavens. “Listen carefully, and do exactly as I say. Grab a spear and push it through the heart of the warrior chief.”

The man does what he is told, turns to the heavens and asks, “Now what?”

The booming voice replies, “Now you are done for.”

So, those are some of the best from the chapter (some of you are thinking, “If those are the best, what are the worst?”)

Comments or contributions are welcome.


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No Males Needed… Is this female heaven or hell?

This is a fascinating ant species. Apparently, THERE ARE NO MALES! None. Zero. Zip.

So, my question is, “Ladies, what do you think of this as a model for which humanity should strive?”  🙂

The article comes from National Geographic.


April 17, 2009—Save the males? Too late for Mycocepurus smithii (pictured).

Photograph by Alex Wild

Photograph by Alex Wild

This leaf-cutter ant species is all female and thrives without sex of any kind—ever—according to a new study. The ants have evolved to reproduce only when queens clone themselves.

“They appear to have evolved a new mode of reproduction, and the genetic mechanisms have yet to be worked out,” said lead study author Anna Himler, a research associate at the University of Arizona.

In M. smithii the typical muscular reproductive organ of female ants has evolved into a “sort of a ghost of an organ at this point,” Himler added.

No male of the species has ever been found, and “even if a male were theoretically to appear somewhere, we’re not sure they could mate any more,” she said.

Other ants, such as fire ants, that can reproduce asexually have working sexual organs, just in case.

M. smithii also has an idiosyncratic arrangement for that other apparent necessity: food. The ants, which range from northern Mexico to Argentina, are in a codependent relationship with a specific fungus.

“The fungus garden is quite wimpy,” Himler said. “If you remove the ants, the gardens will quickly die.”

The ants keep the gardens weeded, and they “feed” the fungus leaf bits, insect carcasses, and feces, which the ants clean and cut up before offering to the fungus. In return, the fungus provides the sole source of food for the ants’ babies.

—Anne Minard

Findings appeared online April 15 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.

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Quirky facts from Quirkology

I have just finished reading Richard Wiseman’s wonderful book, Quirkology: How We Discover The Big Truths in Small Things. I highly recommend this book. It’s a fun read with lot’s of fascinating information.41a-bfvlakl_aa240_

Wiseman defines ‘quirkology’ as using “scientific methods to study the more curious aspects of everyday life” (p.3).

Here are just a few of the interesting quirks I discovered in this book:

  • When it comes to detecting lies, you are better off listening to the person’s words than trying to read their body language or tone of voice (but there are specific things for which to listen).
  • You can form interesting anagrams (rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase) out of the names President Clinton of the USA [Anagram= ‘to copulate he finds interns’] and US President Ronald Regan [Anagram= ‘repulsed and ignorant arse’].
  • Low frequency sound waves that fall below the human hearing threshold can produce weird effects often associated with being in the presence of a ghost (e.g., sudden feelings of cold, tingling on the back of the neck, a feeling of being watched).
  • People tip more when the sun is shining, and even when waiters tell them that the sun is shining.
  • After controlling for several factors such as poverty, divorce, and gun ownership, researchers found that the more country music a radio station played, the higher the suicide rate among its listeners.
  • People bought wine that was three times more expensive when classical music was playing in a wine cellar than when pop music was playing.
  • Good looking men are given significantly lighter jail sentences than less attractive men.
  • Most American presidents have been above the national average height.
  • Personal ads with a balance of 70% talking about yourself and 30% talking about what you want in the other person attract the most responses.
  • The worst offenders of express checkout lines (more items than allowed) are women who drive vans.

While a lot of the specifics in the book are fascinating, it’s what these quirky facts illuminate about human nature that is the real benefit of this book.

So, pick up a copy. It’s a fun way to learn cool stuff. And you can always use it to spark conversation at your next dinner party.

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Consulting Psychics for Financial Advice

During this economic malaise, maybe you should consider obtaining financial advise from a psychic. Surely a psychic’s paranormal abilities could help you beat the market.

Or maybe not.

Here’s an interesting comment from Joe Nickel, paranormal investigator extraordinaire. This is a reprint from the Center for Inquiry’s blog.

Psychics Blind in Investment Scandal

March 25, 2009

Now we know: Buffalo-area investment manipulator Guy Gane Jr.,

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer.

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer.

who has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a 5.8-million-dollar Ponzi scheme, regularly sought advice from “psychics.” (A Ponzi scheme, named for swindler Charles Ponzi [1889–­1949], involves paying investors high returns, actually gained from an increasing number of new investors—until outgoing cash exceeds incoming cash, and the structure collapses.)

One of Gane’s self-professed psychics was Ellen Bourn, who is a past-president of the Lily Dale Assembly, the world’s largest center for spiritualism (the belief that one can communicate with the dead). Her Web site bills her as an “incomparable metaphysician, psychic, master astrologer, healer and teacher.” In actuality, her real name is Ellen Bornstein, and she—like Sylvia Browne and many other “psychics”—has traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. (Such persons often have rich fantasy lives, believe they have psychic and healing powers, think they receive special messages from higher entities, and so on.)

Gane’s other psychic has an even longer list of claimed powers—or fantasies: He is a self-described Christian mystic, dowser, spiritualist medium, healer, tarot reader, etc., including exorcist. He also describes himself as a Bishop of the Western Rite Orthodox Catholic Church and “renowned metaphysician,” as well as a bankruptcy attorney—although the home he practiced from has suffered foreclosure and is presently boarded up.

Interestingly enough, “Bourn” served as “executive director of project development” and Lagona as “company lawyer” for Gane, whose corporate headquarters are located on Sweet Home Road—just a few blocks from my own office at the Center for Inquiry. (I was familiar with “Bourn” from Lily Dale, where I have frequently investigated spiritualist phenomena. Also, I was invited to participate in a previous “Lift the curse on Buffalo” event involving both psychics, although I decided not to dignify the silliness with my presence.)

In breaking the March 1, 2009, story, Buffalo News reporter Michael Beebe quoted “Bourne” as insisting she was only a part-time employee, had no dealings with Gane’s investments, and dispensed advice “as a hobby”; Lagona did not respond. I would just ask the two alleged psychics: Couldn’t you get an inkling of what was going on? Catch a glimpse of those millions of dollars disappearing from people’s retirement funds? Feel the vibrations from the impending scandal and misfortune that you yourself were caught up in? Were your psychic colleagues at Lily Dale and elsewhere unable to warn you? Now do you understand the consequences of living in a fantasy world?

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Wanna come with me?

This will be my very first time to attend THE AMAZING MEETING known as TAM7. It is run by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

This 4 day conference will be held in Las Vegas from July 9-12 at the South Point Casino Hotel & Spa. Here’s James Randi in a video to tell you a bit about what’s on the agenda. Sounds very exciting. Penn & Teller. Bill Prady, Executive Producer of the hit show, The Big Bang. Michael Shermer from Skeptic. Adam Savage from Mythbusters. And, of course, James Randi himself.

In fact, let me have Randi tell you about it himself:

I am very excited about this. Wanna come with me????

Hotel rooms are only $80 (US) a night!

You can find more info here.


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