SGU Episode 109

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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello & welcome once again to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Today is August 24, 2007. As many of you have probably already heard, but some may have not, this is a very sad episode for the Skeptic’s Guide. Skeptical rogue Perry DeAngelis passed away on August 19.

We are going to have a more complete and more fitting memorial for Perry on next week’s show. For this week we are simply going to play some of Perry's best moments; these are clips from previous episodes chosen by Perry's fans. And I want to give a special thanks to Mike Lacelle, who runs, for putting together this collection of clips for us. Also, before those clips we will include a lecture that Perry gave about 10 years ago. This was part of a seminar that we gave to science school teachers at that time. So I give to you a brief retrospective of Perry DeAngelis and the full panel of skeptics and I will return next week to share our thoughts and our memories of Perry.


The Psychology of Belief: A Lecture by Perry DeAngelis (00:00)

(All dialogue in this segment by Perry)

OK, I’m just going to talk to you very briefly now about psychology and how it impacts what we've been talking about. I'm going to touch on the psychology of needs, your needs; susceptibility to a con, specifically how not to be; effects of crisis, when you're at your most vulnerable; cults what they do; the placebo, now the next for the placebo effect; the idiomotor effect, mass delusions, illusions and fantasy prone personalities are all ways that can often explain paranormal phenomena that we come in contact with. And then I’ll finally touch on conspiracy theories.

I just put up here Maslow's hierarchy of needs: this is just one hierarchy that exists today. It’s a good one, it's well rounded, it's one that is used all the time and impacts many other areas of psychology. He posited that there are five stages of needs that we all go through.

  • The first is physiological: air, water, food, the things you need to stay alive.
  • The second one is safety needs; this is feeling safe in your environment and knowing that the number one-- your first needs are going to be met.
  • Three is love and belonging; it's not to feel alienated.
  • Four is needs of esteem, to know that you have value and are valued by others.
  • And finally self-actualization, which where he posited that that is the state where people can finally do the things they were born to do. Painters paint, writers write, teachers teach.

We point this out because it is a clear demonstration of the fact that we-- that needs permeate us at all levels; all stages and all ages. And you have to be aware of them.

This is a slide on how to avoid being conned. First thing on the slide is “be aware of your own needs”. You can actually sit down and create a chart of your own needs. You can try and do it from highest to least; most to least and that will give you a very clear and very graphical way to understand your own needs and the places where you are most likely to be the most vulnerable. The things that you need the most, the desires you have the most are the places you have to pause the most and reflect soberly.

Going on, "if it seems too good to be true it probably is", that’s an old cliché, very valid. Be suspicious of flattery, be wary of pressure for impulse buying, "do it right now or else you're going to lose the deal", “everyone else is doing it". Don’t trust weasel words: may, might, could, should. If somebody claims that something may do something, they’re not making a claim at all. "Don’t trust vague references to authority", we've discussed that. Anecdotes we've discussed and the reasons why it's important to know why not to trust an anecdote; why you can't just trust a tale, it has to have corroborative evidence to support it. Peer pressure: don't believe that all cons are easy to spot or that you're too intelligent to be conned, because you're not. Conmen are out there; they are students of human psychology. they've been doing it for years and years. The con people are smarter than all of us. You have to be aware you have to reflect. do not be convinced by sincerity. This reflects back on the tales of anecdotes. Actors can turn sincerity on and off. It’s like a light switch. You cannot simply be moved by sincerity.

Crisis is simply a time when you are more vulnerable than normal. You know good example of this is in the case when a loved one or even yourself has been diagnosed with terminal disease. You have come the end of the course with evidence-based medicine. There’s nothing else you can do. This might be a time where it is conceivable, even logical to seek alternative modes of cure; alternative modalities. But still, even in this time, even in this great need when the alternative is death, you have to pause; you have to consider what it is that you're going to do. If you're going to go seek an alternative cure is there any evidence that that cure has effect? What does your evidence-based physician have to say about it? How much does it cost? Are you going to bankrupt your family? Things like this. Even in times of great duress you have to pause and it is when your critical faculties become the most vital and the most important.

There are groups in our society that prey specifically on people that are compromised and vulnerable. These are destructive groups; groups often known as cults. The five aspects that clearly paint them out and a way to recognize them quickly are--I have up on the screen. The first is totalism; this is, you know, black-and-white thinking; this is us versus them. Once a cult snares you in and that can be a subtle process; that can take a long time; doesn't have to be overnight, they can-- first they’ll invite you to come play some volleyball with them, maybe a couple of picnics, you know, make you feel comfortable, needed, wanted; they will satiate needs that in the outside world have not been sated for one reason or another. Once they get you in, these processes very quickly begin to take place. Environmental control: this is control of your every waking moment. 24 hours a day, everytime you're awake, what you're doing, what you're eating, what you're thinking, what you're saying; there's no time to reflect, there's no time to consider what's going on around you. There’s no time to criticize. Loading the language is simply jargon that is meaningful to people inside the cult, inside the network, but not to people outside of it. Like with the Moonies, when they call the Rev. Moon the true father; to us, that has very little meaning but to them it's very important. Because if you join the Moonies, that sad fact should occur, then he becomes your true father, literally. Your biological parents are severed from you emotionally, intellectually and physically; they keep you from them and he becomes your true father. People in that cult believe that and has powerful meaning to them. Next is demand for purity. This is what everyone in that cult is striving towards. Purity is defined by the leadership; it can be altered to their own needs, it can be changed in any way they see fit and anything is appropriate to sacrifice for purity, for seeking of purity. Finally, there's the mystical leadership. Again it's Moon in the case of the Moonies; this is a mass wedding that he performed, the 7500-odd couples, all pre-arranged weddings and it's a total surrender to the leader and the group. They take on an almost mystical mantle, these leaders. And you give up your morality, you will give up ethics, you will even give up the very basic need for self-preservation to court what the leader wants. We are all I’m sure familiar, at least peripherally, with Heaven's Gate that recently occurred; all those people gave up their lives, even the need for self-preservation was lacking in those folks. Very important to be aware of destructive groups and their red flags and they don't have to be religious in nature; it can be a political group, it can be a commercial group; it’s not just religious groups.

Next I want to touch on the placebo effect. Placebos are basically inactive substances. About 1/3 of the people taking an inactive placebo will report a beneficial effect, whether it's decreased symptoms or increased health even though the substance couldn't possibly have any effect, they will. And the reason why that occurs is what's very important here. How the placebo can account for seeming--this is the way that a placebo can account for seeming successes in alternative medicine regimes. The fact of the matter is that most disease is self-limiting. The old saying of "if you treat a cold it'll last a week, but if you leave it alone it'll be gone in seven days" is very true. It’s very real. But this is the way someone taking a placebo could report that they were cured by it. "I have a cold; I took the placebo; I was cured." Post hoc ergo propter hoc; we discussed it earlier; after it, therefore because of it. That's a very key thing that most people don't understand and it's an easy way to account for the seeming effectiveness of these things. You also have suggestibility and expectation under those circumstances. And the three questions I have up here; can you answer the following:

  • Does the positive placebo response mean the patients problem is imaginary?
  • Does the patient have to believe in the therapy for the placebo effect to occur? and
  • Are placebos harmless?

Does anyone think the answer to any of these questions is yes? Come on, no one? Good. The answer to all three is no and the reasons are what I've discussed already. The fact that you don't have to believe in a placebo for it to work. It helps; it makes you more suggestible, it gives you a larger expectation. Also, does the placebo response mean the patients problem is imaginary; it doesn't, because the subjective symptoms can disappear while the objective ones still remain. Pain is a subjective symptom; that can go away but your objective or causal symptom could still be there. The fact that-- another reason why placebos can sometimes-- this effect can sometimes seem that alternative modalities are working is because the fact that if you're seeking care in the first place it probably means you take better care of yourself therefore you're more likely-- it is more likely for the disease you have to be self-limiting and cure itself.

All right, next I want to touch on subconscious control. Just very quickly, this is simply the ability for your mind to do things that you're totally unaware of. The common one is the Ouija board. Raise your hand if you used a Ouija board ever in your life, thank you Parker Brothers. Very simple, this is called the planchette; you take this thing, you put it on the board and this is not to scale, it's smaller than this. A bunch of people put their hands on the planchette and they ask a question, you know, "will I be happily married?" and then the thing starts to move around. And inside here, in this blank part of the planchette the answers are spelled out or the yes and no appear or whatever. It's very easy for 4 or 5 people sitting around this board to put their hands on there and not be aware of the small manipulations they're making on the planchette that are moving it around. Very-- and of course, paranormalists will say "well no, it's demons, angels, God, what have you". Easy way to test it: blindfold the people, spin them around, spin the planchette around, spin the board around, put them on there, have them try to divine anything. It'll be gibberish. Very simple way to test that.

Delusions. Delusions differ from what Bob was talking about earlier.

  • Hallucinations, which perceive things that aren't there.
  • Illusions, which perceive things that are there incorrectly and
  • Delusions.

This is-- definition of a delusion is keeping a belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; overwhelming evidence to the contrary and you do not surrender your belief; you do not alter it. Very good example of this is anorexia. You have a young woman usually bone-slender, dangerously underweight, they look at themselves in the mirror and they perceive themselves as fat. That's a delusion. Happens to be a very dangerous one.

Mass delusions simply are delusions that grip a community, generally for a short amount of time. An excellent story is told about a panda that escaped from a zoo-- I forget the country, I believe it was a European country-- escaped from a zoo and they had a picture of the panda on television, on the national news, seen by millions of people. Thousands of calls flooded into the zoo about sightings of that panda; they saw it everywhere. You know, 10 miles away, 50 miles away, a mile away. The fact of the matter is the panda wandered a few hundred feet onto a train track and was killed by a train. Sad story, but an excellent example of mass delusions.

The four basic kinds are:

  • An immediate threat to the community, this would be like Satanic cults nowadays. You know, people who believe they see Satanism all over the place. And begin to perceive it anywhere, everywhere.
  • The community flight panic. The best example of this--is when a community actually gets up and flees the area because of what they've been told--is Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds scare back in the 30s. It was disastrous and the point about this is when people begin to flee, just a few, and other people see that it will infect them and the panic will begin to spread exponentially unless you stop, sit back, and reflect on what's going on. You know, what is the possibly that Martians are actually attacking? Is there anything burning? Is there anything on fire, you know? Stop; don't forget your faculties in these cases.
  • Wish fulfillment. Good example of that was the bank slide that Bob showed you. People who wanted to see the Virgin Mary in that oil stain. They wanted to see it so they flocked to that bank in the hundreds and there's other cases like that that we'll discuss when we talk about cases.
  • Small group delusions are generally families that can be deluded by a very powerful domineering father figure or mother figure. And they can simply lead the family down their delusionary path because of the structure. A cult would be an example of that too, especially in a smaller cult.

OK, the fantasy-prone personality is very important. This was first defined in 1983 by two gentlemen whose names I will find momentarily ... thank you (inaudible) who first defined this and it again is another way to explain much of the paranormal phenomenon that is reported around us. It's a normal personality variant; now, it's not a disorder, it's not classified as a disorder, it's not in the DSM-5. But it's a variant of personality. Indicators of fantasy-prones include susceptibility to hypnosis, you know hyper-suggestibility, possessing imaginary friends as a child, long-term imaginary friends, you have the whole thing figured-- think about what it takes to maintain an imaginary friend sometimes for a number of years, the level of detail that you have to go into. Having psychic experiences having out-of-body or floating experiences, vivid waking dreams. We all have daydreams. People who are fantasy-prone can be lost in their daydreams. You know, obviously to the detrimental effect of their workplace or the people around them. They have visions and hallucinations, they encounter apparitions, they have receipt of special messages, you know they hear things that only they hear and that they're attuned to and clued into. An excellent study was done by Joe Nickell. He's also the guy you heard the panda story from. He's a member of CSICOP, the national skeptical group. John Mack, has anyone here ever heard of John Mack in Harvard? John Mack is a guy up at-- he's a professor in Harvard, he's tenured. He runs a support group for alien abduction survivors. Active group, he's doing it today at Harvard. He wrote a book; Joe Nickell took the book; he dissected the 13 cases in the book and he looked at the 13 people that were described in the book and he tried to see if there was any correlation to fantasy-prone personality. 11 of the 13 people had every single indicator of fantasy-prone-ness in their personality background. Another person had 4 and another person had 5. It's reasonable evidence that this can account for many of the paranormal phenomenon around us. And it's estimated that between 5 and 7% of the people in this country could possibly be fantasy-prone.

Conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories stem from an innate human paranoia. This is usually a positive thing; we're always on the look-out for things that can harm us and hurt us and it's generally a good thing. But it can sometimes rise to the point of being unhealthy when it combines with your emotional state for seeing patterns in chaos, and it can rise to a point where it becomes unhealthy. The appeal of conspiracy theories are obvious. It's a way to bring together a bunch of disconnected stimuli into one coherent conspiracy that's easy to defend yourself against. It’s also another excellent way to explain a lack of evidence for whatever it is that you're purporting. "I don't have the evidence because there's a conspiracy against me to block it", you know, to hide it. There's three components to a conspiracy: They are

  • the Conspirators
  • the Saviors and
  • the Dupes.

The Conspirators are generally perceived as powerful, corrupt, it's evil on an epic scale. They are incredible-- they are able to have incredible foresight, insight, subtlety, but they also make horrendous mistakes and that's the way that the second group, the Saviors, are able to perceive them. The Saviors are the group that when you refer to a conspiracy theorist, that's generally what you're talking about, the saviors. These are the people that perceive themselves as the soldiers of light in opposition to the army of darkness. They're the few select individuals who perceive themselves as intelligent; smart enough to see through the veil, detect the conspiracy, and then try and educate the rest of us about it. And that's us, we're the Dupes. We're the people who are just unaware of the conspiracy. We’re not part of the conspiracy; we're just helpless victims of it the way they are and everybody else is. Again, it is often the government that is pinpointed by conspiracy theorists as being the great corrupt-- because it's an easy one. They're there, they're big, they have a lot of money, so to me it is inconceivable that someone can imagine our government in this day and age can keep a secret about almost anything. You look at-- you know, the biggest secret, the atom bomb, the secret of the bomb and the manufacturing-- how quickly did that spread to our arch-nemesis at the time, the Soviet Union? Couple of years before they had the atom bomb; they had our secrets. We can't even keep the president's affairs in the oval office a secret. I can't imagine you take something like Area 51 where conspiracy theorists, UFO theorists say that, you know, "it's a big government conspiracy; they've been hiding a crashed saucer over there and aliens", I mean, it's unbelievable! Hundreds of people would have to have gone through Area 51 and maintained that secret, that profound secret of having some alien race there that we-- or a saucer that we captured years ago all these years. Inconceivable. So remember you have to keep your critical faculties about you when you consider and encounter any of these things. Be aware of your own needs and your own vulnerabilities; pause, reflect, be wary.

The Fans' Favorite Clips of Perry (20:25)

S: And now, some of our favorite clips of Perry chosen by his fans.

P: How can two mathematicians come to a different conclusion? Well, one of them's a dick.

E & B: (laughing)

J: She won't tell me how big an angstrom is.

P: An angstrom's about the size of your phallus.

J: (laughs)

P: Can we please move on to number 3?

P: Astrology is as vacuous as the space it worships.

P: Bacteria protect-- sure, bacteria can do anything.

E: Anything?

P: Birds planning ahead, absolutely, I mean, every time they see a monkey, they plan on getting their asses kicked. That's basically accurate. So, the first one's nonsense.

P: Uh, yeah, monkeys clearly perfume themselves; it's one of their higher-order functions that they do. Unlike birds, by the way, who always smell like bird shit.

P: And remember, chi spelled backwards is crap!

P: I believe that China will control the weather. It doesn't cooperate, they'll have it shot.

P: Yeah, I mean, dolphins and monkeys basically could play chess together; those are brilliant animals.

P: If the Aether turns out to be true, I'll move to Iran and become a Muslim and I'll raise birds. OK? That's my problem; I'm putting it out there right now.

R: (laughs)

S: We're gonna hold you to it, Perry.

R: Oh my God.

P: You're damn right! Damn right, and if it's not true, I'm flying over there and telling the doctor he's a living baboon.

R: So either way, we get a good show.

P: That's right.

P: Believe me, it is extremism that is the problem. I mean, I have been nauseated by the things people of extreme faith say many, many times in my life; Muslims, evangelicals, all of them. And, I have been nauseated by rabid atheists who I have encountered at, say, an atheist society, are just as fervent, just as bigoted, and just as loudmouthed about their atheism as a funda-- the problem is extremism. I think to be intellectually honest, one has, in my opinion, has to say they're an agnostic.

S: Birds, Perry, are actually quite bright. Some of them can problem solve--

P: Oh, will you stop already with the birds... Please...

S: They can! They can work out puzzles and they have quite sophisticated language and now European starlings were shown to have a recursive grammar.

P: OK, there's that one chicken in Manhattan that can play Tic-Tac-Toe.

P: Also, any monkey could whip any bird's ass.

J: That's not true.

P: What do you mean, "that's not true"?

J: What, you don't think-- you think a little spider monkey could kick an ostrich's ass?

P: He could trip him right on his long stinkly(?) neck. Absolutely.

R: Wait, wait, is the monkey allowed to hold a shank of some sort?

J: A shank. Wait, yeah OK, I'm sure that the monkey has a shank.

P: He could jump right up on his neck and give him a nostril flip.

R: (laughing) I'm just saying, that's one of the monkey's main strengths, is the ability to operate a sharp object.

P: The whole "opposable thumbs" situation.

J: There is something scary about a monkey with a knife.

R: There sure is. Furious George!


S: Furious George?

R: That's a Simpsons joke; I can't take credit for that.

P: Ostriches are such chumps.

S: Perry, you're just an avian bigot. Face it. Hates everything avian.

P: (laughs) Come on! Ostriches are chumps.

R: You're a birdist!

S: A birdist...

P: Along with their avian cousins. You ever see Alfred--

S: You have to stop ostracizing the ostriches.

R: Oh, that was bad.

S: That was bad.

J: Oh my God... Perry, did you know an ostrich could kill a man with one kick?

P: Oh, please. Did you ever see Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds? I mean, come on, it's really terrifying... watch out, we got to tip-toe amongst the seagulls! get away from me! Give those birds a drop-kick.

R: (laughs)

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