Psychics and Ghost Hunters and Skeptics, Oh My! The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo 2014.

Early in October 2014, along with my Skeptic Zone cohorts and members of the Australian Skeptics, I was invited to attend the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo in Casula, New South Wales. Held in the old Casula Powerhouse, reputed to be haunted, the expo featured a main floor with displays and stalls, a room in which several psychics were conducting readings and a main theatre where workshops and talks were taking place.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

Frankly, I had utterly no idea what to expect, this being the first event I’d attended based around things we skeptics tend to be skeptical about. I wondered whether my lack of belief in the supernatural and tendency to question paranormal claims would be a source of conflict or hostility, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel, being immersed in a group of people with such different beliefs to my own. I took comfort in the fact that Richard Saunders had been invited to speak though, and that Australian Skeptics had been given a table on the main floor – surely we were welcome.

Skeptics! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Skeptics! Richard Saunders and Tim Mendham. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The expo organisers were kind enough to provide me with a media pass, so I decided that I would spend the day immersing myself in the workshops and talks that I had access to.

Before the workshops began, I had a bit of a wander around the tables that were set up in the main hall downstairs to see who was there and what sorts of things they were talking about or selling… and they were a varied bunch: ghost hunters, psychics, people concerned with auras, crystal sellers, all sorts of fun novelties (inflatable aliens and Edgar Allen Poe action figures were spotted!), people drawing portraits of spirit guides, people selling clothing. What stood out to me was that it was all quite… well, benign, really. I’m the sort of skeptic who struggles most with medical quackery; comparatively, I actually find the paranormal side of things quite fun. Not to say that I think that it’s all harmless. I worry about people handing money over to shonky psychics who aren’t on the up and up, I get a little concerned as to whether claims to be able to contact the deceased interfere with people’s grieving processes – but all in all, belief in the paranormal isn’t something I tend to feel any need to rail against.

 

A Witch’s Circle and a Visit to the Spirit Plane

The first workshop for the day was run by Kylie Allerton, titled “A Tarot Ritual – connecting you with the spirit world”. I entered the theatre to be greeted by an interesting scene on the stage – a circular mat was on the floor, surrounded by cushions – and on the mat were an assortment of items; a small cauldron sort of a thing, a little resin cast human skull, a couple of long bones, some goblet type cups, an incense burner and a deck of tarot cards.

I took a seat near the front of the theatre and took a moment to take everything in… for somebody who doesn’t tend to get too much exposure to the world of spirituality, it was an unusual scene for me to behold. Before long, the friendly people who were running the expo introduced Kylie Allerton.

Kylie is a psychic reader and practicing white witch who incorporates crystal balls, the tarot, and palmistry when conducting readings. Today she was working with the tarot – and us! The audience, there were perhaps forty of us, were invited to come and join her on stage and create a circle around the mat. It took me by surprise, frankly – I was expecting something akin to a lecture, rather than a participatory exercise – but I decided on the spot that I’d take the opportunity to join in and experience everything that I could.

I hoped that nobody would mind a non-believer taking part in what was about to happen… if such a thing as negative or cynical vibes exist, I aimed not to emit them. I did my best to be open to whatever occurred, to join in rather than pooh-pooh things that I don’t necessarily believe in.

Down we went, we formed a seated circle around the mat, some people removed their shoes and got comfortable. Kylie explained that we were going to do some summoning and that she’d give us each a tarot card to use as a portal to the spirit plane.

Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography

I was under the impression that purple would be appropriate, but it seems I could have just worn black. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

We began the ritual with some breathing exercises, during which we were to consider a person who had passed away that we wished to get in contact with, and a question that we would like to ask them. The incense was heady and I focused on my breath, so I didn’t really spend a great deal of time paying attention to what the other participants were up to, but the room seemed incredibly calm. Then Kylie began to open a witch’s circle. This isn’t a subject that I know too much about, but she recited incantations, blessings and called upon the spirits of air and fire – when she did this, we joined in with a little chanting. Bones were struck together, something was set on fire and we were ready – Kylie walked around the circle with a deck of tarot cards held out face down and we were instructed to choose one each.

My chosen person who had passed away that I thought I’d like to have a conversation with was my beloved grandmother… and the tarot card that I had selected was The High Priestess. The character in this card struck me as rather matriarchal – a wise woman, as I considered my grandmother to be. Some others, particularly those who had cards from the minor arcana (sort of the equivalent of numbered cards, rather than face cards) didn’t see immediate relevance in the cards that they had selected. Kylie invited us to think about our first impressions on seeing the pictures on the cards, to study the colours and details, and offered to chat with people throughout the day if they wanted a hand interpreting their selection.

The High Priestess.

The High Priestess.

Next, we used the cards to create portals to the spirit world. We followed Kylie’s instructions and examined them with our regular eyes, held them to our foreheads and examined them with our third eyes, put our cards down and visualised them with our third eyes, then imagined them growing, to the size of a painting, to the size of a doorway, into a doorway, which we then stepped through.

I found this fairly simple to go along with, it was much like participating in guided mediation, and I went with whatever came to mind as we were taken through a scenario of walking into our cards, through a landscape – this was the spirit world – then toward our deceased loved one, who we conversed with. The background of my card seemed to be tropical fruit, so I imagined walking through a plantation of pineapples, which became a very odd forest, where I eventually met my grandmother. I remember my grandmother fairly well, I think – though I’m aware that our memories aren’t entirely reliable – I imagined a fairly believable conversation with her (she wasn’t a believer when she was alive and acquiesced in our conversation that she was a composite of my memory and imagination). Then Kylie guided us through saying goodbye, heading back across our landscapes, back through our doorways and told us to shrink the cards back down to their actual size again.

The circle was closed and we toddled off with our cards.

 

Ghost Hunters!

The next session, “Communicating with the Dead – Modern Techniques and Victorian Twists”, was with Rob and Anne from Eastern States Paranormal, a paranormal investigative team based in NSW.

Rob and Anne were very affable speakers and presented us with an overview of their experiences attempting to communicate with the dead and the techniques that they’ve used to do so.

We were taken through some audio of different techniques they’ve used in reputably haunted locations to contact the spirits – singing, stomping, chanting, singing in tones which clash. Anne and Rob played us some recordings of EVPs, electronic voice phenomenon, which are sounds found on electronic recordings that some interpret as ‘spirit voices’.

Eastern States Paranormal... ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Eastern States Paranormal, or… ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audio recordings were of varying quality and I cannot say whether or not what we were hearing were the voices of spirits, but I was incredibly aware of the concept of pareidolia while throughout this presentation – pareidolia being our tendency to recognise patterns within random stimuli, with or without suggestion. It’s an interesting phenomenon: we hear phrases when songs are played backwards, we see faces in the surface of mars. I feel that a desire or expectation to see or hear something, sometimes combined with suggestion, can account for many things which are heard in EVPs, or seen in spirit photography, which was also presented in Eastern States Paranormal’s talk.

Toward the end, we were given an interesting rundown on the history of different modalities which people have used to attempt to contact the spirit world – Ouija Boards, tipping tables and the like. As a skeptical type, I suspect that the ideomotor effect comes into play when such devices are being used, but I find them to be fascinating curiosities.

Anne and Rob struck me as kind and good humoured people – they were curious about contacting the other side, they were very respectful in their approach and they demonstrated a genuine desire to help others who are experiencing otherwordly concerns.

 

Mitchell Coombes, Celebrity Psychic

After a break for lunch was the drawcard of the expo, Mitchell Coombes. Billed as “Australia’s most trusted psychic medium” and awarded 2011 Psychic of the year, Mitchell Coombes is an author, appears on radio and television regularly and was one of the contestants on season one of The One, a reality tv show pitting psychics against one another, on which our very own Richard Saunders was a judge.

While I’ve seen broadcasts of many psychic shows on television and YouTube and have seen Mitchell himself on daytime television, this was the first time I’d been an audience member… it was a very different experience. Mitchell is a very charismatic speaker; he’s high-paced, energetic and very good at engaging his audience. After he had introduced himself and told an anecdote about a client who wasn’t certain she’d had an experience with contact from the afterlife – of course she had! – Mitchell asked us to help him raise the energy of the room by standing up, stomping our feet, clapping our hands and cheering. It reminded me of being in an evangelical church or a faith healing service – the crowd went wild and the excitement in the room was palpable.

Mitchell then seemed to receive messages from the spirit world to be passed on to members of the audience.

I found this part a little difficult. A couple of days prior, I’d been chatting with Richard about the talk he was going to present and one of the things he covered were questions that psychics can use to gain more information from the audience: “I’m getting an ‘A’ name”, “I’m getting a blue car”, etcetera. Well, Mitchell did get an A name, but the car (or motorcycle) was red.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audience did seem to get a lot out of his readings though – there was a lot of laughter, a few tears. I’d recommend that anyone skeptical of psychics attend such a show, experiencing the emotion in the room gave me a greater appreciation of how psychics can interact with their audiences. Usually when I see readings done, I’m able to rewind, rewatch and analyse while removed from the situation – live shows are a very different experience to witness than recorded sessions.

 

Energetic Healing

Next up was Sue Bishop, presenting a workshop on “Energetic Healing – are your thoughts and feelings making you sick?” Sue is a metaphysician, psychic, teacher and author and is the co-founder and director of the Chiara College of Metaphysics, which offer courses on metaphysics, parapsychology, spiritual healing and intuitive sciences.

This session was the closest the expo came to presenting what I felt was questionable health advice, I did struggle with some of it a little. Sue believes that blocked charkras can be responsible for disease, that tending to the spiritual self can prevent disease from taking hold and that energetic healing can be conducted, attending to a person’s auras, to manage their wellness. Sitting and listening to her speak about these things and tell us of how she prevented the diabetes that she had a genetic predisposition toward by making lifestyle changes and letting go of troubles from her past, I frequently wanted to ask her where her knowledge came from and how it was that she knew it to be true – but interrupting her talk would have been very rude. I would be curious to speak with her more about her beliefs in the future though.

Sue then had us come to the stage for an energetic healing workshop – we were to pair up with strangers and prepare for the first exercise. My partner was a sweet woman around my own age, and I found myself worrying that she would feel that I was being somewhat disingenuous, being a skeptic taking part in something which may be important to her. I took part in the exercises with good intentions, absolutely wished her well and followed the instructions that Sue gave as best as I could.

First was an exercise in which we were instructed to take turns channeling white light into our crown chakras, then focusing to make that light either cool fast moving blue or warm slow red, then passing it to our partners, who had to guess what colour light they had been given. My partner did the channelling first and was surprised that I’d guessed correctly that she’d aimed to pass me blue. Frankly, the odds were fifty-fifty to begin with; then I took into consideration that cool blue was much more appealing than warm red under the hot stage lights and that my partner had an expression on her face which was somewhat serene and seemed to match better with the former colour choice.

Then it was my turn to pass a colour. I’m not entirely sure what white light, or energy, is – it isn’t visible light – but I know that a crown chakra is located around the forehead, so I imagined a beam of literal white light entering my forehead, moving through my body into my hands and turning a cool, calm, flowing blue. I made a gesture of passing it to my partner and imagined it moving to her hands, she told me it was blue. Again, I’m inclined to put it down to probability, environmental influences and visual cues – and perhaps the way Sue described the two colours as she was giving us our instructions made one seem more appealing than the other. I didn’t have an opportunity to note the trends of the entire group.

Our next exercise was to do the same, but instead of passing a colour, we were to pass an emotion from our memories. Sue asked us to keep our faces neutral as we recalled a time of joy, to be visualised as yellow, or hurt, which was to be visualised as a hot murky red. My partner went first and I watched her concentrate. Her face did remain fairly neutral, but she took some time before she was ready to pass to me and her body language struck me as quite unhappy. I was actually quite concerned for her – when she made a passing gesture to me, I told her that I felt that things weren’t too good for her and asked if she was okay. She was incredibly apologetic and all I could think to do was reassure her that I was fine, just concerned for her, and opt to send her joy in return. She seemed a little fragile and sad to me, perhaps she’d been through hard times, and I hoped that my good intentions were more important somehow than my lack of belief.

Then we moved to the front row of seats, partner number one standing behind partner number two, and performed what we were told was a short energy healing session. There was a lot to it… white universal energy from above, grounding earth energy from below, healing angels standing behind us. Chakras, auras, miasm, many different colours, silver filaments, fohat, akasha and ether, nadis – this was complicated stuff. Sue talked us through everything, she spoke of energy to visualise, what each aura looked like, that we were to transfer energy from various places through ourselves and to the person we were healing, massaging their auras. The massage was literal, we placed hands on one another, then raised them to where each aura was meant to exist around the body and sort of smoothed them out.

I wasn't sure how to draw 'miasm', but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

I wasn’t sure how to draw ‘miasm’, but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

 

When my partner was being the healer, I sat peacefully in my seat and listened to descriptions of colours and patterns and lights – frankly, it was quite pleasant to just sit passively. When asked how I felt afterward, I truthfully replied that I was ready to get into bed – it had been a long day and I welcomed more stillness!

Next was my turn to stand while my partner sat – I imagined light coming from above, energy coming from below, somebody standing behind me passing general healing sort of vibes through me. I put my hands on my partner’s shoulders, smoothed out what are to me imaginary auras and generally hoped that she was well. She seemed happy afterward.

One thing I really want to say about the energy healing workshop: I thought that it was very much to Sue’s credit that she mentioned several times that one of the things people do when they’re experiencing the onset of disease is to dismiss thoughts of going to their doctor, and that this was a problem. I agree with her strongly here – if things are potentially amiss, see your GP!

 

The Skeptical Perspective

The last talk of the day was from Richard Saunders; and I’d really like to credit the organisers of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for inviting a skeptic to speak at their event. I feel that it’s a testament to their sense of enquiry that they’d include the perspective of a non-believer in their programme.

Richard Saunders with Spoony Action at a Distance.

Richard Saunders with some Spoony Action at a Distance.

I really wasn’t sure how Richard’s talk would be received. After introducing himself, explaining his background and what the Australian Skeptics get up to, Richard posed some questions about the nature of ghosts and spirits and the mechanisms people use to detect and communicate with them, discussed the fallibility of human memory and perception, noted some questions that psychics who aren’t on the up and up can use to gain information when cold reading, explained how paradolia works – and it was all really well received. I noticed a lot of people in the audience nodding along in agreement, a few “Ah ha!” moments and a few giggles at Richard’s jokes.

We had a few people approach us afterward to say that they were happy that we were there – including my partner from the energy healing workshop, who I was glad to have the opportunity to have a bit of a debriefing chat with and let her know that I wished her the best.

I really appreciated Richard’s approach to speaking at the expo. Perhaps some people expected a skeptic to be negative and make claims that the paranormal does not exist; there was none of that. He primarily approached the topics that he covered from a consumer affairs angle – with tips on not being cheated by psychics who weren’t on the up and up – and gave reassurances that human minds can very easily be fooled.

... but there were cosplayers!

Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre or ghost? Photo by Darrin Langbien Photography.

So, that was my day at the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo.

I can’t honestly say that I saw any evidence of an afterlife, anybody’s ability to communicate with those who have passed on, the existence of psychic energy, spirits or the paranormal in general, but I did encounter many people who were welcoming, good humoured and kind hearted. I would like to thank the organisers and attendees of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo – I had a lot of fun and look forward to doing it again in 2015!

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Surprise Jawa! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

 

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic Magazine Vol. 34 No. 4, and a version of it was on episode #312 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast {Permalink} – also in this episode, Maynard speaks with several expo attendees. With thanks to Darrin Langbien Photography and The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for professional photographs reproduced in this piece

Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, a pro-disease book for children by Stephanie Messenger

This report appears in The Skeptic Zone Podcast #330 {Permalink}

"Marvelous"

“Marvelous”

In the wake of the current US measles outbreak, which began at Disneyland in California and has so far has resulted in 121 infections and thousands more people exposed across seventeen states (figures current for 15/02/2015), public and media attention has been directed toward the issues of vaccination and the anti-vaccination movement.

As we witness the very real effects of lowered herd immunity due to vaccine refusal, vocal support for vaccines has been prominent, as has criticism of anti-vaccination misinformation. In particular, public attention has again been drawn to “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles“; a picture book which attempts to reassure children that it’s a good thing to experience measles infection, written by Australian vaccination opponent Stephanie Messenger.

The blurb on the back cover gives a good summary as to what the book is about:

“Melanie’s Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body.”

You know… this book is troubling on so many levels. When I decided to cover it in my report this week, I initially wondered whether I’d have to present you with ten minutes of stunned silence.

The story within follows Tina, who arrives at her first day back at school after the winter holidays to find that her friend Melanie is absent. Their teacher, heavily pregnant, advises the class that Melanie is at home with measles. Some children are concerned and worried about catching measles.

“Tina heard Jared tell Travis, the boy beside him, that he wouldn’t get the measles because he had been vaccinated.
Travis said that he wasn’t vaccinated, but didn’t mind, until Jared then told him angrily, “Well, you’re going to die if you don’t get vaccinated.”
Travis thought about this for a minute and said to Jared “Well, I know that isn’t true because I haven’t had any vaccinations and I am still alive!”
Jared didn’t know what to say to that!”

And why should Jared? He’s a kid… a fictional one at that. However, adults – adults who write books for children – certainly should know better.

Of course kids who aren’t vaccinated aren’t necessarily ‘going to die’… the nuances of risk are utterly lacking in this book. It’s also a little heavy handed in portraying a vaccinated kid in a negative manner – more on this later.

Tina returns home after school and chats with her mother about Melanie, measles and the other children’s reactions. Tina’s mother, who has not vaccinated Tina after attributing an illness Tine’s older brother experienced to his vaccination, reassures Tina that the measles don’t hurt. She tells Karen that children get spots on their body and can feel very hot for a day or so, and that for most children it is a good thing to get measles, as many wise people believe measles make the body stronger and more mature for the future. Tina then asks her mother why the other children were scared. Her mother replies,

“They are scared because they don’t know much about measles and most people fear things they don’t know anything about. It’s a bit like being scared of the dark.”

irony!

Tina’s mother then tells her about pox parties, and “natural lifelong immunity”

This has always puzzled me greatly. If measles and chickenpox are absolutely fine to experience, why on earth do some anti-vaccinationists declare immunity gained by experiencing an illness to be a good thing? Bizarre.

The story continues. Tina asks her mother if she can go and visit Melanie in the hopes of catching her measles. Her mother feels that this is a great idea and suggests bringing carrot juice and melon to help Melanie recover.

Yep, they’re having a pox party for two.

Melanie greets Tina at the door and proudly shows off her spots, reassuring Tina that they don’t itch or hurt at all. Melanie’s mother is nonplussed at the efficacy of the measles vaccine Melanie recieved and mentions that Melanie has the worst case of measles the doctor had seen in years.

Melanie’s family doctor… must be rather limited in his experience, if an active and happy child with a rash is the worst case of measles he’s seen in years. Common measles symptoms include fever, malaise, runny nose, dry cough, conjunctivitis and rash… complications can include middle ear inflammation, diarrhoea and vomiting, respiratory infections, pneumonia, miscarriage and premature labour in pregnant women (such as Tina and Melanie’s teacher), encephalitis (which occurs in around one in a thousand measles cases – 10-15% of people with encephalitis die, 15-40% end up with degrees of permenant brain damage). There’s one complication of measles that Melanie’s family doctor wouldn’t have been able to spot though – subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE. It’s rare, affecting around one in a hundred thousand cases of measles, but nasty… SSPE is progressive inflammation of the brain that causes loss of personality and intellectual disability. SSPE usually begins around seven years after measles infection.

It’s hard to fathom how anybody could be aware of these facts and still classify measles as a benign short-lived children’s illness… and one to actively seek out exposure to.

Back to the book, Tina’s mother talks about the ability of ‘plenty of vitamin A’ to prevent measles and assist recovery from measles. The girls play with dolls, hug and display wonderful manners.

A week later, Melanie is back at school with no rash. Tina and her mother are incredibly disappointed that Tina hasn’t contracted measles – Tina’s mother attributes this to Tina’s immune system being in good condition, because she eats lots of raw fresh food, drinks plenty of water and plays outside.

As much as it’s feeling like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the inaccuracies in this book… I find the downplaying of how highly infectious measles is is one of the most troubling elements in Melanie’s Marvelous Measles. Measles is airborne and lives a long time outside the human body… a person can become infected with measles by entering a room that somebody carrying it has been in two hours prior. It is estimated that nine in ten people without immunity who have contact with someone who is carrying measles will contract it. Measles symptoms usually occur 10-12 days after infection… all of this means that measles can spread like wildfire – particularly in areas of low herd immunity.

The book ends with the news that Jared, our vaccinated strawman, did get the measles. Tina attributes this to Jared eating so many sweets and chips, and sanctimoniously wishes, “I hope the measles make his body stronger and more mature and that he learns to eat more fresh foods so he can take better care of his body,”. The accompanying image is of an annoyed Jared laying in bed covered in spots with a hamburger, chips (labeled ‘MSG enriched, GM Full, I kid you not), cheezels, soda, cupcake, chocolate bar on his bedside table.

The emphasis on nutrition is heavy here – as is the suggestion that good foods can prevent disease as effectively as we know vaccines can. Of course good nutrition affects general health, but as my friend Alison so eloquently put it recently, “Diseases don’t care if you’ve eaten kale or McDonalds.”

The last page features Tina beaming up at her mother, juice in hand, fruit beside her, and exclaiming, “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to catch measles next time someone we know has them!”

There’s a dedication in the front of the book, which I’m thinking some of the book’s intended audience, children from four to ten years old, would read if they were reading independently. It states,

“Dedication . . .
This book is dedicated to Jason, my first born son. In his short life he taught me to be a more responsible parent, and with his death from vaccinations, came my life purpose.”

It seems that Stephanie Messenger has experienced terrible grief in her life, which has led her on the path she pursues. However, I question whether it is responsible to associate infant death with vaccination in a book for children – at all, but especially when the dangers of measles are downplayed so greatly – the risks of vaccination versus the diseases they prevent are utterly skewed. If I were a kid, who trusted in this book and the adult who gave it to me, I would be terrified of vaccines and fairly blase about measles. Which is perhaps the aim of this book – but goodness, I find it troubling. Kids trust their caregivers to provide them with accurate guidance in life and this book does anything but.

Mainstream media outlets, news websites and forums have been linking to Amazon’s listing of Melanie’s Marvelous Measles – and the torrent of negative reviews which Amazon users have been leaving.

Now, I don’t know how many of these people who have reviewed the book have actually read it, or whether many are just responding to its very existence. Some of the reviews are rather poignant – amongst the anger, frustration, mockery and black humour, there are some salient points which I feel bear repeating, such as this review from “Seabisquick”:

“My infant daughter went blind after contracting measles from an unvaccinated child, and yet there’s no braille version of this wonderful book for me to give her someday to explain to her how awesome the disease that took her sight away is.”

Also this, from someone identified as “AD”:

“Wow! I will have to buy this for my Dad. He and my uncle had Polio as toddlers and both were left with permanent disabilities. Now, in their golden years, they get to suffer from Post-Polio Syndrome as an added bonus! Preventable diseases truly are “marvelous” – just ask my Dad!”

A five star review from “M. J. Willow”:

“I’m so glad this book is out! Here I was thinking the two weeks of my childhood spent in a darkened room with blinding headaches and a burning fever were not fun. It was the early sixties and the measles were all the rage, but I was too young and ignorant to realize I was experiencing a miracle. This book has opened my eyes. I had to read it through some thick eye glasses though. They’re almost as fun to wear as the little, plastic sunglasses I had to keep on when I watched tv with my viral pals, The Measles. To this day the measles protect me from getting too much sun as the sensitivity to light has never left me.

Just to be a part of history and to have lived under a quarantine that stretched out to almost a month when my mother took ill with my marvelous measles is an honor I didn’t recognize. Lucky for me though! I had immunity to the disease! Good thing my mother wasn’t pregnant then. At least, I don’t think she was. I have no siblings.

I must apologize to my children for withholding such a glorious experience from them. Vaccines were available and free for the taking when they were young. I can’t believe I fell for that. Hopefully, they will forgive me for denying them this life-changing experience.”

And finally this, from user “TampaGirl”:

“What a dirtbag move to steal the title of author Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”– Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. This so-called author is just a leach on society, children, and the memory of Dahl’s little girl.”

Indeed, the title “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles” does bear resemblance to the title of Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.

Which leads me back to the media coverage relating to the current US measles outbreak. Circulating widely at the moment is an open letter which Roald Dahl wrote to parents in 1988, in which he urges them to vaccinate their children and speaks about his own experience of losing his seven year old daughter Olivia to measles in 1962.

It’s a heartbreaking but important read, and has been republished on many websites over the past few weeks; I’ll put a link in the show notes to its publication on Snopes, which also includes Dahl’s harrowing recollection of his daughter’s last day, and his wife Patricia Neal’s perspective on losing Olivia and the effect it had on Roald Dahl.

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“For Olivia 20 April 1955 – 17 November 1962″, in the front cover of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

So much of this is sad… that there’s an outbreak of measles in a country where it was considered eradicated, that some parents need convincing in order to vaccinate their children, that dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation – some directed at children – exists at all. Based on what I’ve been observing over the past month and a half since the US outbreak begun though, more and more members of the public are standing up for vaccination and criticising misinformation – and the media are acknowledging this sentiment.

While it’s lousy that it’s taken an outbreak to catalyse this wave of public support for vaccination, and the outbreak is unfortunately far from over, hopefully the pro-vaccination sentiment will strengthen as a result and some parents who are complacent or on the fence regarding vaccinating their children may reconsider their positions.

Sherri Tenpenny’s Australian Tour Cancelled #StopTenpenny

The following can also be heard on The Skeptic Zone #328 {Permalink}

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny’s planned speaking tour of Australia and the #StopTenpenny campaign. Well, there have been some developments… and at the risk of breaking continuity (and potentially the space-time continuum, who knows?), the big news first… on the 28th of January 2015, Sherri Tenpenny and tour organiser Stephanie Messenger announced that they had canceled their series of Australian seminars.

I left off my report on the 11th of January with news that all but two of the venues scheduled to host Tenpenny’s events had canceled their bookings. On January the 14th, Michael’s Oriental Restaurant in Brisbane made the announcement that they would no longer be hosting Sherri Tenpenny. Then on January 19th, an announcement appeared on the event page for the seminar to be held at Rydges Southpark Adelaide saying that the venue had cancelled the booking.

From the Eventbrite page:

“IMPORTANT NOTE:

The venue has cancelled our booking due to bullying by vested interests who do not believe in informed consent, free speech and respect for other’s rights, and who appear to support censorship of thought and science.

A new venue is being sought now so please book your ticket

You will be notified of the new venue in due time.

Thank you”

Indeed, the organisers of the event were still encouraging people to buy tickets, despite the fact that every venue had pulled out.

Meanwhile, those who had already bought tickets to the seminars were left with little information as to what was going on… no emails were sent, nor announcements made beyond the one I just read, which was placed on each Eventbrite event page.

The media coverage was equally as ambiguous. Tenpenny herself appeared on The Today Show, in which she referred to those who have campaigned against her seminars in Australia as “extremists” and mentioned that “bomb threats” have been recieved.

In fact, Sherri Tenpenny has mentioned “bomb threats” repeatedly to the media. Bomb threats are rather serious and ought to be treated as such – and of course, reported to the authorities for investigation.

The bomb threat that I have witnessed, and several people have made screen shots of, was left in a comment on the Facebook Page of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant.

vazquez

That’s not an okay thing to say.

Unfortunately, when Tenpenny has referred to the bomb threat, she has omitted mentioning who it came from… one of her supporters. The gentleman in question has a rather substantial history of making threats to vaccination advocates. Presumably he was angry at the prospect of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant potentially cancelling Tenpenny’s booking.

Now, I’m not willing to judge all of Tenpenny’s supporters by the actions of one person – all sorts of people take up causes without necessarily behaving in ways that are approved of by others who they campaign alongside. However, I am incredibly disappointed that Sherri Tenpenny has decided it acceptable to tell the media that bomb threats have been made without disclosing that they were made by one of her supporters. This omission, alongside claims that those who have campaigned against her seminars are “extremists” and “terrorists”, suggest to the public that one of her critics made the bomb threat, and I find this disingenuous to the extreme.

Some media outlets have, unfortunately, run with the “bomb threat” story without diligent investigation. I’m heartened though that others have looked into the issue further, witnessed the threat itself and its context, and have reported accurately.

The “bomb threat” was featured in a press release made by Sherri Tenpenny on the 28th of January, titled, “DR. SHERRI TENPENNY’S SPEAKING TOUR CANCELLED FOR REASONS OF SAFETY AND SECURITY

You know… I’ve been watching the #StopTenpenny campaign fairly closely and I have not witnessed any threats of violence coming from vaccination advocates. If I ever do witness such, I will condemn it incredibly strongly – threats and intimidation are utterly unacceptable. Any such behaviour should be reported to the authorities.

What I have witnessed are community members coming together to campaign against anti-vaccination seminars, which would have misinformed parents and parents to be on how to best protect the health of their children. They have done so via social media, petitions, letter writing to venues and MPs, collating publicly available information and blogging it, and engaging with the media.

To then have that characterised as a hateful campaign involving terrorism and extremism, to be compared with the Charlie Hebdo killers in Paris and the gunman behind the Sydney seige… well, how else are those who’ve had to back down going to frame their decision to do so. Claiming persecution perhaps fits their self and public images better than having to admit that an overwhelming number of Australians are willing to stand up and say no to the spread of misinformation that harms children.

I’d like to finish off with a few exerpts from Stephanie Messenger’s public announcement that the tour has been cancelled. To be frank, I find some of it a little bizarre… and I’m glad that she posted it, as perhaps a few people who came to hear of Sherri Tenpenny and Stephanie Messenger via the media coverage of the now cancelled tour, will have a look at where Stephanie Messenger is coming from and find it… a little less likely to be evidence-based.

From Stephanie Messenger.

“With the pro-vaccine extremists running their campaign of hate, intimidation, bullying, sabotage of businesses and threats of violence, we could not in good conscience put the attendees, speakers and new venue owners at risk of violence and harassment. We are mindful that at each seminar there were already people booked in who were bringing babies and children along and as we are all about protecting babies and children, we are not willing to go ahead and risk their safety.
When you are dealing with extremists, you just never know what they are capable of doing as we have recently seen with the Sydney siege, and also, the Paris violence against free speech.
These pro-vaccine extremists are actually:
terrorists against free speech – they are against people accessing all information to make an informed decision regarding this medical procedure,
they are in favour of human sacrifice as they know some babies are injured and killed by vaccines, but think this is OK ‘for the ‘perceived’ good of the community”,
they are against people sharing whatever information they want and therefore they are in favour of censorship,
they believe bullying is acceptable when they do it. Venue owners were threatened, harassed and intimidated to cancel the contracts we had in place. This is bullying.
Of course they deny all this, but please look to their actions – these speak louder than the words that they speak with their forked tongues. What you do and say in this world is a declaration of who you really are, and these people certainly made plenty of statements about themselves. Basically they are low vibrating souls who have behaved in rude, arrogant, vile, intolerant, controlling, abusive, manipulative and ignorant ways and so, have declared this is who they really are. They are so far away from truth that they are trying to hold on to their ignorant and fearful position not matter what. Just know, as higher vibrating souls who have learnt the truth, you can do much more to advance the truth for all to learn by speaking out whenever you have an opportunity.”

That’s about half of it – you can read the rest at your own leisure on the GanKinMan Foundation’s Facebook Page.

And for anyone wondering, this ‘low vibrating soul’ received an automatic refund for the full purchase price of the ticket, $79.92, from Stephanie Messenger, via Eventbrite and Paypal yesterday.

eventbrite

The #StopTenpenny Campaign against anti-vaccination seminars in Australia – Podcast Report

On The Skeptic Zone Podcast #325 {Permalink}, Evidence, Please has a report on the #StopTenpenny campaign against anti-vaccination seminars in Australia by US anti-vaccine campaigner Sherri Tenpenny.

Below are the links I’ve mentioned on the report, plus a transcript below the jump.

Social Media:

#StopTenpenny on Twitter
Stop Sherri Tenpenny from entering Australia Facebook Page

Blog Posts and Facebook Statements:

Reasonable Hank, “2015 anti-vaccine tour of Australia – the Tenpenny caravan of hurt
Diluted Thinking, “Anti-vaccination Seminars in 2015 by Stephanie Messenger
Diluted Thinking, “Healthy Lifestyles Naturally (HLN) – Seminars
Reasonable Hank, “Getting to know Sherri Tenpenny – a guide
Reasonable Hank, “Venues confirm being misled by anti-vaccine Messenger – Tenpenny tour
Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network, Statement regarding SAVN views and intentions are regarding Tenpenny’s visit

Media Reports:

4th January 2015
The Daily Telegraph, Jane Hansen, “Pro-vaccine lobby fight to stop US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny lecturing in Australia

5th January 2015
Mamamia, Amy Stockwell, “This woman is a danger to children. And she’s coming to Australia.
The Daily Mail, Louise Cheer, “Should this woman be allowed to preach her anti-vaccine warnings in Australia? Parents’ outrage over American doctor’s child health seminars
news.com.au, Jane Hansen, “Uproar as US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny announces trip to Australia
The Guardian, Michael Safi, “US anti-vaccine activist Dr Sherri Tenpenny plans Australian tour in March
The 7:30 Report, Jane Cowan, “Anti-vaccination lobby to blame for US return of preventable diseases say doctors” (video)

6th January 2015
3AW Radio, “Victorian Health Minister slams anti-vaccine movement
SBS, Shanthi Benjamin, “Calls for government to deny visa to US anti-vaccine activist
The Age, “Vaccine row about to boil over
Sunshine Coast Daily, Adam Davies, “Push to ban anti-vaccination campaigner from Aussie tour
ABC PM Radio, Bridget Brennan, “Controversial anti-vaccination campaigner to visit Australia
The Project TV, “Ms Information – the campaign against an anti-vaccination campaigner who plans a speaking tour in Australia

Times Live, Katharine Child, “No vaccine for Mandela-itis
The Age, Julia Medew, “Doctors want to bar anti-vaccination campaigner
ABC, Bridget Brennan, “Calls to deny visa to American anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny to speak in Australia
Junkee, Meg Watson, “Why You Should Join The Campaign To Stop Anti-Vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny Coming To Australia
Health of Ukraine, “Scandal in Australia : the inhabitants of the country are outraged at lectures about the dangers of vaccines” (in Russian)
Herald Sun, Phillipa Butt, “Health Minister urges organisers to cancel event featuring anti-vaccination activist Sherry Tenpenny
The Age, Nick Galvin, “ABC’s 7.30 under fire over anti-vaccination campaigner James Maskell

7th January 2015

New Zealand Herald, Daily Mail, “‘Deny her a visa’ – Australian outrage over anti-vaccination activist’s speaking tour
Queensland Health, Dr Sonya Bennett, “Queensland Health’s response to anti-vaccination discussions
The Guardian, Weekly Beast, “7:30 falls into vax wars
ABC News, “Sherri Tenpenny: Who is the controversial anti-vaccination campaigner planning to visit Australia?

ABC News, “Sherri Tenpenny: Sydney venue cancels seminar of US anti-vaccination campaigner” (Republished on Mamamia)
SBS News, “A controversial American anti-vaccination campaigner may be prevented from entering Australia.
ABC News , “Sydney venue cancels seminar of US anti-vaccination campaigner

8th January 2015

The Age, Eryk Bagshaw, “Sherri Tenpenny: US anti-vaccination campaigner’s Sydney and Melbourne shows cancelled
Sydney Morning Herald, Julia Medew, “Venues cancel events featuring US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny
Medical Observer, “Doctors protest anti-vax speaking tour” (Login required)
3AW Radio, “Talking Health –  Sally Cockburn interviews Meryl Dorey and John Cunningham” (audio only)

9th January 2014

The Daily Mail, “More venues cancel anti-vax seminars
The Today Show, “Prof Peter McIntyre refutes Dr Tenpenny anti-vaccination beliefs” (video)

The Today Show, ‘The Grill’, “Misinformation tour by anti-vaccination activist” (video)
The Guardian, Oliver Milman, “Anti-vaccination campaigner compares critics to Charlie Hebdo attackers

11th January 2015

Sydney Morning Herald, “Anti-vaccination views are misguided – but not illegal
Daily Life, Jacqueline Maley, “Anti-vaccination advocate’s tour in tatters after most venues cancel
Sunrise TV, “Health experts urge parents to vaccinate kids” (video)

Skeptical Coverage:

Doubtful News, “Tenpenny’s anti-vaccination tour hits a snag in Australia (Update)
Society for Science Based Medicine, “They Do Not Shrug Down Under

Petitions:

change.org, “Petition to Refuse Sherri Tenpenny’s Visa into Australia
The Parenthood, “Petition to STOP anti-vax. campaigner Sherri Tenpenny #StopTenpenny

Event Links:

EventBrite Event Listing and Ticket Sales
GanKinMan Foundation
GanKinMan Foundation FB Page
Birth, Baby and Beyond FB Event

 

Report transcript:

(more…)

Crank Magnetism

Much to the delight of his unashamedly geeky parents, my son Oscar is rather enthusiastic about science. While at five years of age he’s fairly certain that he’s settled on a career in paleontology, he hasn’t yet ruled out other sciences – so we’re more than happy to give him access to microscopes, telescopes, do kitchen based chemistry experiments and physics at bath time (alongside the occasional trip to hunt for fossils or visit a natural history museum).

Geeky parenting is an absolute joy – indulging the kids’ curiosity about the world around them, seeing what hypotheses they come up with to explain their experiences, suggesting ways that they can find out information. In addition to plenty of hands-on exploring and experimenting, we view YouTube videos, do image searches (SafeSearch ON!) and look through books for information and ideas.

His girlfriend is Charlene the Human Skull Model, they sing lovely duets.

“Magnet Science” with our lovely model, Scott the Visible Australian Soap Star

 

So for Christmas, alongside Lego and Minecraft toys, Oscar received a few books – a couple of them science-related. One, “Magnet Science”, seemed rather nifty and engaging. It contained a selection of magnets, a (mercifully sealed) container of iron filings, and a series of experiments to perform, reminiscent of the sorts of projects I grew up with on The Curiosity Show. “Make a fishing game”, “make a compass”, “construct an electromagnet (under parental supervision)” – all with brief explanations of the science behind what was occurring. Fantastic.

Until I spotted the last page, titled “Facts and Feats”.

Click to Embiggen

Click to Embiggen

Magnet Medicine

Magnetic therapy is an alternative medicine practice using magnetic fields. No one knows for definite how it works, but supporters of the therapy believe it helps to restore health by improving circulation, as the magnets attract the iron in the blood, increasing the supply of oxygen to the source of the pain. Others say the magnets reduce the ‘negative energy’ in the body.

Oh boy.

“No one knows for definite how it works?”

Nobody has proven that it works, nor shown a mechanism by which it can work, other than the placebo effect.

The supporters of the therapy who believe that magnets attract the iron in the blood? They’re wrong. Iron bound to haemoglobin is no longer ferromagnetic. Which is a good thing, else we’d be hemorrhaging frequently as we walked around our homes and we would literally explode when undergoing an MRI scan.

As for others saying that magnets reduce the negative energy in the body… you can’t get much more meaningless than that. ‘Negative energy’ is a vague concept, supported by the anecdotal ‘others say’. These are empty words.

Why is this in my child’s book on science? This is not scientific at all – the claim is pseudoscientific and its presentation is incredibly uncritical. Furthermore, merely Googling “Magnet therapy” returns several pages explaining that magnet therapy is a pseudoscience. I am utterly dumbfounded as to how on earth an author who did so well designing and explaining experiments over the previous forty seven pages of this book – and they managed to write about electromagnetism in a manner appropriate for children – could get it so very wrong on the last page.

And it isn’t as though there is a short supply of legitimate “Facts and Feats” relating to magnets. The second paragraph on the page is an excellent example, it discusses the speeds reached by a Maglev train. Fascinating – and real!

The third paragraph, though…

Human magnet

Aurel Raileanu from Romania set the world record for being the strongest human magnet. Magnetic objects, including televisions, spoons and irons stick to his skin! He doesn’t know how he does it, but says he focuses his mind and releases the feeling of magnetic attraction, which makes even the heaviest objects stick to him.

… Human Magnets!

Have you ever seen a child stick a spoon to their nose? It’s a cute little parlour trick, utilising the angle of the nose, the hairlessness and smoothness of the skin and some moisture from breath or a little naturally occurring sebum to reduce friction, to make it appear that the spoon is stuck to the nose.

People practicing Human Magnetism – oftentimes claimed to be a mystical or mysterious power – are very likely using the same tricks as the child with a spoon on their nose to balance objects on their faces and bodies. Objects – always with a smooth surface – are often placed against the upper chest, upper arms, upper back, at the top of a slightly protruding belly or on the face; all body surfaces which are not quite perpendicular to the ground. Human Magnets tend to have hairless smooth skin, which, combined with everyday skin secretions, create a surface which is non-slippery. Skin elasticity also plays a part; our skin tends to conform somewhat to surfaces against which it is pressed, particularly when force is applied.

Out of vanity I’m hesitant to describe the ideal skin for Human Magnetism tricks as being ‘oily’, but I do seem to be able to attach more pieces of cutlery to myself when I haven’t showered for a few hours.

Jojo the Human Magnet is available for your next function at competitive rates!

Every skeptic needs a spoon trick!

There are some simple tests to check whether magnetism – rather than balance, smoothness and skin secretions – is causing objects to apparently stick to somebody who claims to be a Human Magnet. Suggested by our friend James Randi: a sprinkling of talcum powder over the skin. This reduces the friction and stickiness of skin, generally causing items to slip. Benjamin Radford suggests a light coat of oil. Thin clothing or a thin layer of plastic should also show that magnetism isn’t the cause of the objects sticking, as surely magnetic force ought to be able to penetrate these materials.

No human magnet has ever been tested and shown to emit a magnetic field which has produced significant readings from a gaussmeter, nor has the more simple test involving holding a compass near a Human Magnet shown evidence of a magnetic field. Given that some Human Magnets claim to also be able to attract glass and ceramic objects (with smooth surfaces, unsurprisingly), it is possible that the claimed ‘magnetism’ is some force of attraction other than the magnetism we’re familiar with – in which case, ‘magnetism’ as a term is rendered as vague as the word ‘energy’ used in similar circumstances and the story of Aurel Răileanu has even less reason to appear in the Magnet Science book.

And yet, despite how simple it is to debunk their claims, Human Magnets still make the news every few years – a boy covered in spoons, a woman with coins stuck to her face, and Aurel Răileanu – purported world record holder, with his irons and television. I can only guess that the media who report on Human Magnets feel that a fantastic sounding story is more interesting than the simple trick that’s being performed. They may well be right.

I’m quite a fan of parlour tricks, stage magic and illusions; they’re a fun way to encourage critical thought. I love the combination of awe, delight, laughs and wonder that they can evoke. If I don’t know how a trick is performed, I have a rather enjoyable puzzle to try and work out. When I do, I can enjoy the skill of the performer – be it their sleight of hand, their take on presentation or whatever twist they’ve put on an old trick to make it their own.

What I don’t enjoy, however, is when a trick is presented as the truth.  Especially when it’s in a kids’ book purporting to be educational and scientific.

As for telling kids that magnetic therapy is anything but pseudoscience… I can only hope that people who buy sciencey books for children also have an inclination to introduce them to and encourage critical thought and skepticism.

Incidentally, the phrase from which the title for this post is derived is a slightly different phenomena. “Crank Magnetism” is a phrase to describe the tendency of people who are invested in one form of pseudoscience or conspiracy to be rather likely to also subscribe to others. The folk over at RationalWiki have put together a comprehensive explainer over here, which may come in handy in your travels.

2015 anti-vaccine tour of Australia – the Tenpenny caravan of hurt

Jo Alabaster:

Sherri Tenpenny, US anti-vaccination campaigner, is scheduled to tour Australia participating in a series of seminars across the country.

Please read this post from Reasonable Hank and if you are so inclined, consider politely contacting the venues who are scheduled to host her events to ensure that they’re aware that they’ve booked a public health menace. Links to contact the venues are at the bottom of the post.

Thank you.

Originally posted on reasonablehank:

Anti-vaccinationists have their own anti-Hippocratic oath: first do harm. First and foremost they must evangelise, like any fundamentalist organisation. First and foremost they must persuade vulnerable parents – those sitting on the fence – that vaccines are dangerous, poisonous, unsafe, untested…you know the drill. Time and again they are shown to be nothing but brazen liars; not by people who merely disagree with them, but, by evidence.

We have just been advised that US anti-vaccine campaigner Sherri Tenpenny is coming to Australia to do a series of seminars with a host of other anti-vaccine campaigners. Among them is Isaac Golden, the homeopath recently torn to shreds in the Federal Court, in the humiliating Homeopathy Plus! case. That’s quality information for you right there.

If you haven’t heard of Tenpenny, she’s one of the leaders of the global anti-vaccine cult. She’s like the duchess, to Barbara Loe Fisher’s queen. She is…

View original 699 more words

Chemtrails, Chemtrails, Everywhere!

In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.

I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.

hokusaichemtrails

The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.

However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?

Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?

Contrails: What Even Are They?

Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.

Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.

Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.

For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.

Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics

conandoylechemtrails

Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.

Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.

The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.

The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.

Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.

As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.

The “Evidence” for Chemtrails

In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.

Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.

I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.

One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.

People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail - much easier viewing!

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!

So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.

What’s the Harm to Society?

Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.

The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.

Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.

What’s the Harm to Believers?

Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?

Aaaaaaaaargh!

Aaaaaaaaargh!

I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.

Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.

That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.

This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.

There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.

Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.

A-Sunday-Afternoon-on-th-01

Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”

Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.

Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.

 

This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast.