SGU Episode 17

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SGU Episode 17
26th October 2005

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 16                      SGU 18

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


JN: Joe Nickell

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Show Notes
SGU Forum


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is October 26th, 2005. And with me again tonight are Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello

S: Bob Novella...

B: Hello

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Salutations.

Interview With Joe Nickell (0:25)[edit]

S: This week we have a very special guest with us, Joe Nickell. Joe, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

JN: Hi.

S: Joe is a paranormal investigator. One of the—I think the only full-time professional paranormal investigator that I know of. He's the author of the "Investigative Files", which is a column in the Skeptical Inquirer. He is a senior research fellow for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or what we call CSICOP for short, and an associate dean for the Center for Inquiry Institute. Just as background, Joe has worked professionally as a stage musician, a private investigator, a journalist, a document analyzer, and a university instructor. And you've authored or co-authored, I believe it's over twenty books now, including some of my favorites: Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, Secrets of the Supernatural, Looking for a Miracle, Missing Pieces (I think is my single favorite book of yours). And your latest book that's just coming out is Secret of the Sideshows.

JN: It is out at Barnes and Noble stores everywhere.

S: And I think I found it on

JN: Mm-hm

S: And you can check out Joe's website: Who maintains that website for you, Joe?

JN: Tim Venga, who's a friend and happens to be the librarian at CSICOP.

S: It's a pretty site.

JN: He does it on his own time.

Ghost Investigations (1:50)[edit]

S: So, this being October 26th, Halloween is just around the corner, and this is the time of year when any skeptics who have done any ghost investigation or articles get called by all of the reporters and papers looking to do their fluff piece on Halloween for the season, so you must be inundated around this time of year.

JN: Well, there are two types of such articles. One type is, as you suggest, just a fluff piece that usually has some ghost club people going into a haunted house with ghost hunting equipment that isn't made to hunt ghosts with and—

S: Right.

JN: —the use of which they're incompetent to use. The other type of piece, of course, is the piece that actually interviews me or some other skeptic and provides some actual balance. I'm not so bothered by people doing a Halloween news story if they actually use it to teach some science and teach why the ghost club approach of going in with electromagnetic detection devices and cameras and so forth with an agenda to sort of find proof of ghosts, which is simply a wrong-headed methodology and is—

S: Right.

JN: —is not only doomed, but it just fosters pseudoscience and occultism as opposed to a more scientific or investigatory approach, where you go to a haunted house and say "Well, what's being claimed here?" And when you find that out, then you try to explain it.

S: Right.

B: Those types of investigations are extremely rare.

S: The scientific kind are rare.

B: Right, the scientific kind. Usually it's this sensationalistic, "let's find some ghosts"; like, there's a new show on the Sci-Fi channel: Ghost Hunters. Have you had a chance to check that out?

JN: I'm afraid so.

B: Well, they make an attempt to make it look scientific. I've only seen a couple of them, but I've never seen anything that was compelling. I wonder if they've actually ever—have they ever found anything on that show that—some sort of anomaly that they couldn't explain? I'm sure—

JN: Well, I don't know. I don't watch that show regularly. I have my own work to do and their approach is dubious and their methodology is questionable. As I say, what one needs to do is find out what is being claimed and actually investigate. And unfortunately, people doing TV shows oftentimes end up staging effects or engaging in mystery mongering, using questionable techniques and their agenda is quite different from a scientific investigator who wants to explain rather than simply to entertain at whatever cost. So, I'm not happy with any of the so-called ghost hunters. They seem to me they're not really investigating, but providing entertainment.

S: I think the reason why we get interested in this—again, what I tell reporters who interview me about it usually around this time of year: it's not that I really care so much if people believe in ghosts, or the ghost phenomenon itself; it's that there are so many people claiming to be doing scientific investigations, and they're really giving the public a very distorted view of what that is, because they're not doing scientific investigations, and it is interesting, you know, what it is that they are doing and why it isn't science. It's an opportunity, I think, to teach the public why it is not science. For example, as you say, they're not hypothesis testing. They don't actually have a hypothesis about what the phenomenon may be, and then set about testing it in some way.

B: They're more like anomaly hunters.

S: Right.

B: They're looking for something they can't—

S: Exactly.

JN: That's right, and anomaly hunting is really predicated on a logical fallacy called "arguing from ignorance" because what they're doing—they're going in usually with cameras and they take some pictures and then they hope to find orbs or ectoplasmic strands or some other glitch.

S: Right.

JN: Glitches that we explain as reflections off of particles of dust or camera straps; what have you. And by showing these anomalies, they're implying that this is ghost energy or something supernatural, but it's no such thing. It's not proof of anything, and when you claim to have been—when you are drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge, then you're engaging in a logical fallacy.

S: That's right.

JN: That's what so much of the paranormal is.

S: We have our favorite top twenty logical fallacies on our website, on the podcast website, and the argument from ignorance is certainly there. That is a very, very common one, but the ghost hunters—although they make the argument from ignorance, they don't even quite get there because they miss a step that comes before that. They engage in anomaly hunting, but they're not even finding real anomalies. As you said, they're finding things that can be explained with more mundane explanations, like the orbs of light or blotches of light on film have photographic explanations. They're not even true anomalies. So they have these false anomalies, then they make the argument from ignorance to say "we can't explain this", which is wrong; "therefore it's a ghost". The factual premise is wrong, and the logic is fallacious.

JN: There are also occasionally suspicions. For example, a lamp that moved on one show was thought to have been pulled by its cord, and there was a minor scandal over that. I don't know what the true facts are, but it certainly raises the question that if somebody's filming some alleged event, if they're not playing fair—

S: Right.

JN: —then we're at the mercy of that, and again, I've personally known over the past thirty years—I've known a lot of cameramen who worked for the pop TV shows, and many of them admitted to, at times, kind of helping things along a little bit with the paranormal; kind of boosting an effect or making something look a little more mysterious or staging something. Because they would shrug it off, "Oh, it's just entertainment."

S: That's right.

JN: But to the people watching it, it's not just entertainment. People watching it think these shows are honest and true.

S: Well, they're sort of told in the guise of news or information. Sometimes they're so-called "docu-dramas". They deliberately blur the line. We had Dr. Sparks on a couple weeks ago, and we were talking a lot about this; about how the format of a television show has more to do with how believable it is than the content. So, if you have an information or documentary format to your show, but it's filled with utter nonsense, people are still going to believe it. It will affect their beliefs—

JN: Absolutely.

S: —based upon the format.

JN: Maybe a look at my first ghost case would show how I approach things. In 1972 at McKenzie house in Toronto, there were a number of phenomena reported, including footsteps on the stairs late at night, which the caretaker and his wife would hear when they were going to bed, and there was no one else in the house; the house was locked. There were other sounds and phenomena reported, including strange photos. One night the caretaker's wife woke up and saw a ghostly figure standing by her bed.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: Now when I went there, I immediately looked at those different claims. I didn't go in with an agenda to take infrared imaging devices and electromagnetic detection devices and other Radio Shack equipment and see if I could get some kind of glitch or anomaly and then foist that off as a ghost. What I did was specifically take those piece of evidence or those claims and see if I could explain them, and it turned out that I found that next door to McKenzie house was a parallel iron staircase, and it was against an adjacent wall to McKenzie house. So these two staircases were about 40 inches apart, and there was a late-night cleanup crew next door and also a caretaker and his family who used that stair. So obviously the most likely explanation was that people were hearing footsteps on the stair—

S: Right.

JN: —just beyond. And in fact, a tour guide had tipped me to this. She had actually heard footsteps on the stairs once during the day, and rushed over to the staircase and got her ear against the wall and actually heard that there were people next door. So that was a hypothesis and something that had corroborative evidence, and was the simpler explanation and the best explanation, all things considered. And as to the ghost at the bedside, of course that's a very common phenomenon called a waking dream.

S: Right.

JN: People going to sleep or waking up, slip into a state between being fully awake and fully asleep in which they tend to see things like ghosts or angels or aliens; a very common type of experience; very powerful to the person it happens to—

B: Hypnogogia.

JN: —but when we hear those descriptions that they were in bed and saw something at the bed, we can again have an hypothesis that that's most likely a common waking dream. So that's the way I approach investigations, to try to explain it, not to debunk it or foster it or anything else; simply to explain it, and if it's properly explained, then I think any needed debunking will take care of itself.

S: That's right.

B: Hypnogogia, I think, is such a powerful phenomenon. I think it can explain so many of these ghostly reportings. Here's just a simple little test that I want people to try; anybody that might be listening to this, or even you guys. When you go to sleep at night, just as you're dozing off, just think your name in your head, and invariably at least when I try this, it somehow induces some sort of... not a waking dream, it induces...

S: It's like a feedback loop.

B: Right. I mean like, I can actually hear my name being spoken aloud like someone was in the room saying it to me, and it happens almost every time I try it, and I think that's a related phenomenon, and that's just an audible manifestation of—it's not visual, but it's really powerful. I had a waking dream just a few months ago, one of the most potent ones I've ever had—

S: Oh, really?

B: —where it was difficult to breathe, and I heard this weird buzzing in the room, and I was actually paralyzed, which I'd never experienced before, and it was... while it's happening, I was saying to myself "Wow! I'm finally really experiencing this." I can see how people would be completely...

S: Right

JN: Sure.

B: ...completely amazed by it, if you didn't know what it was and it could be scary.

JN: The sleep paralysis, of course, is a result of—your body is actually still asleep, and so you can't move your body and...

S: Well, there's a nucleus in your brainstem that paralyzes you from the neck down, so that you don't sleepwalk or act out your dreams.

B: Well, not really sleepwalk, but yeah, act out your dreams. You would act out everything in your dream. They actually fried that part of the brain of an experimental cat.

S: Yeah.

B: I read about this, and the cat actually... without that bit of the brain, it actually acted out all the dreams that it was having. So it's a safeguard. I mean, you would literally walk down the stairs or out a window if you weren't paralyzed.

S: With sleep paralysis, that paralysis which is natural during the sleep—the REM state, the Rapid Eye Movement or dream portion of sleep—persists into this waking/dreaming fusion state, so you're paralyzed. You have a hallucination that there's something in the room with you. You may also have a sense that there's something heavy on your chest or you have difficulty breathing. People fill in the details with whatever is culturally appropriate. As Joe said, aliens are common in our culture now. In the past it could have been a demon or succubus... or the sea hag.

B: Succubi.

JN: Sure, in the Middle Ages, incubuses and succubuses; in the Victorian era, you might have just seemed sort of transfixed or paralyzed with fear as a grey lady's ghost approached.

S: Right. But it's a neurological phenomenon; it's well known; well described. It has very specific features that can identify an experience as a waking dream or a hypnogogic hallucination, and yet I have yet to meet a credulous ghost investigator or ghost buster who knows about it, and knows to rule it out—

JN: Absolutely.

S: —before proclaiming an experience an anomaly. Again, why they have sort of these false anomalies because they're not really qualified nor motivated to rule out the mundane explanations.

B: And it's so boring.

JN: This is the problem with so much of what the ghost-hunter types do—the ghost-club types that are now in every city in the United States, it seems, has a ghost club—and they seem just unwilling to become educated as to what's going on and what the true facts are. They continue to perpetuate the notion that orbs are some kind of ghost energy. It's simply not true, and they ought to stop making these false claims out of ignorance. They do the same with their electromagnetic detection devices or their attempts to record electronic voice phenomena. They're simply getting glitches, basically.

Electronic Voice Phenomenon (16:02)[edit]

S: Have you ever gone on an electronic voice phenomenon investigation with a believer?

JN: Not per se. Not just an electronic void phenomenon, but I've gone with ghost hunters who have lots of equipment and who have talked about those things. They're just getting, in my opinion, most of the time, they're simply getting a kind of electronic version of a simulacrum. They're getting some kind of random sounds.

S: Random noise...

JN: Yeah, and then they play it, and they think "I think it said 'get out!'"

S: Right.

JN: And you think that maybe if left alone you didn't hear that, but it was suggested to you that that's what the sounds seemed to indicate, and that's what you hear. Just as someone might see a random stain on a wall and think they see a silhouette of the Virgin Mary.

S: Scientists—Go ahead, Bob.

B: It's a form of pareidolia, just with audible—

S: It's an audio pareidolia—

B: With audio, right.

JN: That's right.

S: It's what a scientist would call "dredging the data", and in this case you're dredging it for pattern recognition. It's called pareidolia if the patterns not real. It's just something your brain constructs 'cause it's looking to make the closest match it can. That's part of how our brain works. So, it's not surprising that you would find that. If you look at enough random visual images, you're going to see faces. If you listen to an hour of random noise on the audio, you'll be able to match some kind of snatch of a phrase or a word. Evan and I actually did go on an investigation with some electronic voice phenomenon or EVP hunters a few months ago. And I was also struck by how much background noise is going on, and how far away you can hear things. People out on the street. We were in the Carousel Restaurant in Connecticut, and—on the third floor, and obviously trying to be very quiet while we recorded what was going on, but there was continuous background noise. I don't see how... you listen to the noise back on a tape, how can you say what the source of any sound you hear is?

JN: Exactly.

S: It's actually worthless evidence.

E: And these people are largely amateurs when it comes to analyzing audio signals. If they were to take those tapes or recordings that they have to professional audio folk, they'll tell them straight out that there is absolutely nothing unusual going on there.

S: Right.

JN: Absolutely, and that's the case with their photographs and everything else that they're doing. The equipment is not made to detect ghosts. The equipment is made to be used a certain way, and it's simply being applied to a purpose for which it was not intended, and being done so by people who are not competent to rule out the various things that should be ruled out, and they're sort of saying—again, argument from ignorance—saying we don't know what caused this, therefore it's a ghost.

E: I remember you saying once in a lecture that there is no established test for figuring out what is or what isn't a ghost, and...

S: No gold standard.

E: That's right. There is no measuring stick. There's nothing to determine what it is.

JN: Well, that's right, because in most of the... let's say, forensic science, you identify something by comparing it to a known standard. In fact, in much of science you say, "we can compare this rock to the mineral pyrite, and we see that it has a similar cleavage and luster and hardness and so forth", and we identify it. Or even more precisely in forensic science, we compare a questioned fingerprint to a known fingerprint. But in ghost photos, for example, they're all questioned. We don't have a single ghost photo anywhere that's been authenticated. In fact, I was going over with a reporter recently as sort of a brief history of ghost photography, and I thought it was kind of interesting that when photography was first invented in 1839 with daguerreotype, there were no ghosts. I'm not aware of any ghosts on daguerreotype, other than maybe somebody staging a fake ghost in a theatrical picture or something. But no ghost images. There were none in ambrotypes, and none in tintypes. This leaves you wondering where the ghosts were; why they didn't show up. The first ghosts appear when glass plate negatives made double exposures possible, and a Boston spirit photographer named William Mumler began to produce these fake spirit photos. And throughout the 19th century, most ghosts looked like transparent, sort of fuzzy, out-of-focus people, because they were camera fakes. Some of them looked like paste-ups—cut-outs and paste-up figures in pictures. All of this trick photography related to spiritualism, but ghosts looked like people. And then you start getting in modern times, you start getting these orbs and other shapes of ghosts that quit looking like people. They're looking like balls of light or strands of light.

S: With the introduction of flash photography—

JN: Yes, and—

S: —you get a lot of flash artifacts.

JN: Right, and amateurs carrying little pocket flash cameras that produce these anomalies. So you look at that quick look at the history of photography, you see that either ghosts are really acting very, very differently across time, or we're simply dealing with the way that cameras and film and photographic processes produce anomalies that can be adapted to people who believe in ghosts. So I think it's really kind of illuminating, and it seems to me less likely that ghosts have ceased to look like people and begun to look like orbs than it is that the technology and photography has changed, and we've quit making double exposures and started photographing—getting pictures of particles of dust bouncing the flash back.

Investigating Lake Monsters (22:21)[edit]

S: So, Joe, you investigate, of course, many more different kinds of things than just alleged ghosts. I know that you've recently been doing a lot of work investigating lake monsters. Why don't you tell us about that?

JN: Yeah, Benjamin Radford and I. Ben is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and he and I are skeptical cryptozoologists. We are investigating various things from lake monsters to Bigfoot to chupacabras in Argentina to the yowie in Australia to whatever. Strange and elusive creatures. We have a book coming out called Lake Monster Mysteries, and we have looked at some of the more noteworthy and even some of the more obscure lake monsters around the world. We do, of course, cover Loch Ness, but Loch Ness has been done to death, and we only provide sort of the standard stuff on Loch Ness, and then have tried to go beyond that and take a really fresh new look at Lake Champlain—the monster Champ or the nearby smaller lake, Lake Memphremagog, and its monster Memphre, or one of the top lake monsters in North America, supposedly, Ogopogo in Lake Okanagan, British Columbia.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: And for that one, National Geographic Television invited us to create an expedition. We went to Lake Okanagan and with the cameras and crew in tow, we talked to people all along the lake, and we went out on a very large boat with professional divers and side-scanning sonar and everything you can imagine in the way of equipment, and we had a seaplane. We really covered the most important part of the lake where sightings were predominant, and really came up empty as far as finding such a creature. But what I found very, very interesting and evidence for it at many of these lakes is that it seems to me that people really are seeing—and I'm talking about sane and credible, sober people—who are reporting that they've seen a long, 50- to 70-foot serpentine creature, multi-humped or swimming in an up and down, undulating fashion, long neck, dark-colored and, of course, science says this is not very likely for several reasons. Most of these lakes are about 10,000 years or so old, left over from the Ice Age and ought not to have any kind of prehistoric creature in them.

S: Right.

JN: And, in any case, you would need not one creature but a breeding herd, and yet people are reporting somewhat similar creatures and I suspect we know what they're seeing. I think, again, this idea of people seeing something that looks sort of like something and then their minds filling in a little bit. I believe that at Lake Okanagan, some of those reports people have indeed such a creature and we know its scientific name; it's lutra canadensis, and in Loch Ness, a similar creature known as lutra lutra. That is, in Loch Ness, the European otter and in North America, the North American river otter.

S: How big do they get?

JN: Well, it's not that any one otter is so big; it's that they swim in a line.

S: So they're seeing a colony, if you will, of otters?

JN: And they dive and resurface. Once you've seen film of otters swimming, it just—it's like a revelation. It's amazing how the otters dive and resurface. They make this sort of undulating movement as they swim along and just two or three of them will create the effect of a giant serpentine creature that does, in fact, look just like that.

S: Wow!

JN: And so, if you look at where these lakes are across the world, invariably they're in otter territory, and we've found that that's the explanation for—clearly for some cases, and I don't mean to explain all lake monsters with one simplistic explanation, just as all UFOs are not weather balloons—

S: Right.

JN: —but certainly many of the very good cases are otters, I believe.

S: No, that sounds like a very plausible explanation for at least partly driving the belief and is responsible for some of the sightings.

JN: Particularly when you see—actually, if you see this with your own eyes, you see people who haven't seen it sort of may think of it as some kind of hypothesis someone has come up with, but if you've actually seen it—the way I got on to it was very dramatic, and since then I've appreciated how powerful it is. I was interviewing a New York State wildlife expert, and he told me how he was hiding in a duck blind on Lake Alice and he saw this giant serpentine creature coming towards him, and then, of course, eventually realized it was otters. And he was just shaken by how deceptively like that it looked, and I had put that together with some other reports and much of the same had been known in terms of Loch Ness, but as I began to see photographs and video of otters swimming, my goodness, how they looked just like lake monsters. It's just rather stunning.

S: Well there you go. I think the bigger lesson here is that essentially what you have are cases of sane, well-meaning, reasonable people, but they're having an unexpected, unusual experience, and they don't know quite how to interpret it. So if there weren't any background story or belief in a lake monster, they would just say "oh, I saw something weird; I don't know what it was. I don't know what it could possibly be". But if there's a legend of a lake monster that looks something like a plesiosaur, as you say, their minds fill in the details—

JN: They absolutely do.

S: —to what they're supposed to be seeing. Just like people see something in the sky, and their brain fills in the details of a classic flying saucer, because that's what you're supposed to see when you see something unusual in the sky.

JN: Rupert Gould, the author of one of the Loch Ness monster books, Rupert Gould, who wrote a lot of books on the paranormal many years ago, British writer. He used the term "expectant attention", and I think that's a pretty good label for just what you were talking about. You have this expectancy that there's a lake monster. So when you see something that looks even sort of like it... I've had people, for example, on Lake Champlain—a fisherman told me how he was with some people and they saw this moving lake monster with a large head and so forth and some of the people were quite frightened by it. There was some squealing from some of the ladies, and it turns out that it was simply a bobbing log.

S: Right.

JN: Under just the right conditions something doesn't... because it's partially submerged or maybe an odd shape a bit twisted or gnarled, it doesn't look readily like a log or might not look like a line of otters. These are things people are not maybe very familiar with in the first place, and yet they have this mental image of undulating multi-humped serpentine-like creature, and they do see something that looks rather like that, and so they fill in.

S: Yeah again, that's how we know from neurological and psychological studies, that's how our brain works. Our brain has—it matches our sensory stimuli to the closest fit it has in its repertoire, and it will happily fill in any details. Over time, our memories converge on whatever it is, that image that we have in our mind. You can't distinguish that from an accurate or a genuine memory. In fact, there's very little relationship between how certain we are of the accuracy of our memories and their actual veracity. Memories can be very, very deceptive, and there are other things that determine how much we believe in them with their emotional content, etc., and again, not their accuracy.

B: Steve, even memories—what's called "flashbulb memories". You know, what were you doing when the Challenger exploded or when Kennedy was assassinated. People are just so certain of those memories over even above other types of memories, because something tragic happened, and they think it just sears the memory into their brain, and it's almost infallible. But they've studied flashbulb memories, and they're extremely...

S: Yeah.

B: ...erroneous, just like regular memories, and you're even more convinced that they're accurate and they're not.

S: Even after a few years the accuracy degrades incredibly, and yet the confidence in the accuracy of the memory remains high. Which... we were looking through some material on the Internet just in preparation for this talk, and we came across some UFOlogist—I think Bob sent it to us—their criticism of you; I guess they had appeared on a show with you, and one of the things he says is he claims that he stumped you with—or that you were dismissive of testimony of competent and credible witnesses such as astronauts and high-ranking military personel. There again; that's such a fallacy. There's no such thing as a credible or competent witness. Our human observation, memory, etc., is extremely fallible.

JN: Yes, even some studies that suggest that airline pilots who have given a great deal of credibility in UFO reports are actually maybe more apt to misperceive.

S: Right.

JN: I remember one study that showed they were really not very good at what they observed, when they saw something odd.

B: Well here's a funny anecdote, just something quick. Years ago I was being voir dier'ed for jury duty. I was being questioned by the lawyers to see if I was a good fit for the case, and after they went through the introductions, they asked me, "So Bob, what do you do in your spare time?". And I just happened to be writing an article on the fallibility of human memory at that time. So I said I was the co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, and that I was writing this article on the fallibility of human memory, and I was out of that room within minutes and walking to my car.

S: Right.

B: They completely dismissed me.

S: Dismissed.

B: I was gone. So from then on I always tell people if you're going for jury duty just tell them you're a member of the New England Skeptical Society and you'll be out of there real fast. I guess they don't want people like that.

S: Lawyers don't want skeptical jurors. They want jurors they can manipulate.

JN: Mmm-hm.

B: And the article I just happened to be writing at the time; it was just icing on the cake for them. They must have been, "get out of here!"

S: The fallibility of eyewitness testimony. (laughs)

B: Right?

Bleeding Statues and Joe's Personas (34:33)[edit]

P: Joe, on your website,, there is a large list of personas of various things you've done over the course of your life. It's really quite daunting. I suggest everyone go there and take a look at it. And of course, one of them is paranormal investigator, and when I clicked on that, you come up with a collage of photos of you doing various investigations over the years. Now there's no text accompanying it, so I have to ask you—there's a picture of you, perhaps you'll recall, Joe—investigating a statue of the Virgin Mary with a stethoscope.

JN: Oh, yes.

P: Did you, in fact, detect a heartbeat in that statue, Joe?

JN: Well, that was what was being alleged in Conyers, Georgia. People were claiming that there were heartbeats in the statues. I was asked by Atlanta Channel Five to go there and check that and some other claims out, and I went with the Georgia skeptics, and we were able to kind of post guards along some of these trails where there were shrines here and there, so that we could have a good look at these things without really interfering with people's worship or being seen to be causing any trouble.

P: Right.

JN: So we posted a guard, stationed a guard, and I climbed up, and yes, I opened my trenchcoat and I had a stethoscope. And at first, one of the skeptics thought I was just joking or clowning around and I said "no, no, we're actually going to check this out."

P: Not if the claim is a heartbeat, you know.

JN: Yeah, exactly, just check it out. So we checked out a few of the statues, and none of them had heartbeats; surprise, surprise. It turns out that people were not—of course, the pilgrims were not using stethoscopes. It turns out they weren't listening for heartbeats, they were feeling them. They were reaching up and feeling the statue. And I suspect, maybe, feeling the pulse in their own thumb—

S: Right.

JN: —or even just, in some cases, maybe just the power of suggestion; just their imagination; they expected to feel something.

S: I'll tell you that that is very, very common. As regular listers will know, I'm a physician, and when you're learning how to take a pulse, the most common error to make is that you feel your own pulse, and you have to... there's a certain amount of practice and training you need to avoid feeling your own pulse. It's very simple to do.

JN: Yes.

S: Your hands have a very, very strong pulse in them.

JN: Yes, and that was my assumption that... when I found out that people were just feeling the statues, that was the most likely explanation given that there were no heartbeats. So that was kind of a two-step plan, but that's a funny picture and sometimes when I show it in my lectures, people just burst out laughing, because it's so incongruous.

P: Oh, it's a great picture. It's worth the admission to It's great.

JN: But you raised a couple of interesting points that I might just say a little about. One is that there aren't captions. This website's relatively new and a work in progress. The personas—and I think there are nearly sixty on there now—clearly we will have over a hundred. Some of these are things that I did very briefly; some I did as a child. I expect eventually to have, for example, popcorn vendor and surveyor's chainman. These were things I did as a young fellow, as we all do. Some I did full time and very seriously professional. I was a private investigator for a world-famous detective agency. Even with them, I did undercover jobs and had several other personas, like steel worker and forklift driver and tavern waiter. I loved doing these things. I've been a magician; I've been a riverboat manager; I've been a blackjack dealer, and so on and on. Even paranormal investigator breaks down into cryptozoologist and UFOlogist and psychic investigator and so forth.

S: Have you ever been a carny?

JN: Ah, yes, I was actually—very briefly I was a carnival pitch man in the carnival at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1969 I believe it was. And I talk about that in my new book Secrets of the Sideshows, where I certainly have been more of a carny aficionado. I certainly hobnobbed over the last six years with carnies like Bobby Reynolds and Ward Hall and Net Kuball, the fire-eating dwarf; learned to eat a little fire myself, and lie on beds of nails and so forth. And I do a little spieling. You can just hear Bobby go "freaks, wonders and curiosities, Fat Alice from Dallas."


JN: Just wonderful, colorful slice of Americana. Sort of crude and tacky and full of put-ons and fakery and real strange things and so forth and all mixed together in ways that sort of force you to kind of think and sort it all out. When I first started, it was a perfect—I think that carnival sideshows are great training grounds for skeptics. If you have a chance, go to a carnival and if they've got any side shows, just look and see what's going on because you may see a genuine oddity; you may see a cheap fake, and the difference maybe require a little bit of thinking or a little sharp eye. But I got them after a while to begin to tell me their secrets, little by little; at first it was like pulling teeth, and eventually was down at Gibtown, as the carnies call it, Gibtown or Gibsonton, Florida. More recently, even after the book came out, this summer I was travelling around with some of the carnivals. I would meet up with them, and when they would tear down, I would go and stay up much of the night, take pictures, and talk to them as they tore down the rides, and then sometimes I'd ride on a truck as it hauled the ferris wheel over to the next town. I was just thinking about maybe even doing another book on carnival culture.

S: Right.

JN: I just find it fascinating. It's just very interesting. I've been writing some poems about carnivals. I'm sure I'm one of the very few carnival poets in the country.

P: Would you care to recite one for us, Joe?

JN: I don't think I could remember a carnival poem.

P: OK.

JN: Probably could remember some other poem.

S: Any paranormal poetry?

JN: Yes, I have one on lake monsters, even. So I have been... and I'm a serious poet; I'm not someone writing rhyming jingles. I'm seriously writing poems. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky... when I graduated I was offered a scholarship at Johns Hopkins as a special student in creative writing. So I was already published and had met Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg and I was sort of a protégé of John Wieners', and was really... would have gone to Johns Hopkins, except the war in Vietnam intervened.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: There's another whole story.

S: Right.

JN: But my personas, I did—when I was a young man, I decided I had already done a number of different things; wanted to do more. And I decided to live my life seeing how many things I could do; just sort of investigating life. I wanted to be sort of somewhere between George Plimpton, who was a sort of a participatory journalist, who did a number of things and wrote books and articles about them, and Fred DeMara, known as "the Great Impostor"; played by Tony Curtis in the movie.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: I wanted to be as honest as Plimpton, and I wanted to be as serious and full-time as Demara. I didn't do everything of equal ability, but I tried to be a Hollywood extra and stunt man, and armed guard.

S: Made a good go of it, huh?

P: I think in many ways you succeeded, Joe; in many ways.

JN: Well I think I've lived—the thing is I learned from everything I did, and some of the things I didn't do very well I learned the most from. You know, if you do things that are easy for you, you don't learn as much as if you really are challenged.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: If something's really foreign to you, and you really have to struggle to try to do it, it really stretches you, and you learn a lot. Even my things that I did that weren't great successes or that I didn't do for very long, I value.

S: Made you what you are today.

JN: And I'm still doing them.

The Shroud of Turin (43:32)[edit]

S: So, Joe, I think some of the best work that you've done—a lot of the best writing that you've done has been on the Shroud of Turin. Again, it's a fascinating topic, because there's been so much bad science done around the Shroud. Again, just a brief background: the Shroud of Turin is alleged to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, which would make it two thousand years old, and there are so-called "Shroud scientists," who have investigated it and claim that there is evidence to support that this is, in fact, a miraculous shroud from the area of the Middle East around two thousand years ago. But more mainstream scientists, such as yourself, have a different story to tell. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your investigations into the Shroud?

JN: Yes, and I think it's just a great lesson in the difference between two almost mirror images in their approaches. One method starts with a belief and works backward to the evidence, picking and choosing and trying to find evidence supporting that belief. The other method is more starting with the evidence and seeing where it leads, almost like a CSI scientist—

S: Right.

JN: —going to a crime scene and saying "What have we here? I have no agenda. I'm just here at the crime scene; there's a couple of dead bodies, and here's some blood, and let's proceed further. Let's see what we have here." I joke sometimes about how that approach of having an agenda would work in the police departments. I think it might relevant here. Imagine one day one of the officers comes in, he says "Lieutenant, there's been a killing across town." The Lieutenant says "Well, Sergeant, probably just another suicide. Put it down as a case of suicide." He says, "But, sir, he was shot three times in the back." "Yes, a very bad case of suicide."


JN: "Just put it down as a suicide." We wouldn't put up with that in law enforcement. We would expect someone to go to the scene and just—not with an agenda, but find out what was going on. Let the evidence lead you to a conclusion, instead of the opposite way. With the Shroud of Turin, the proponents clearly are doing one, and science has done the other. When you look at the Shroud, just on the face of it, you say "Well, was is this?" It supposed to be Jesus's burial cloth. Well, what do we have historically? Well, we have the gospel record, primarily the Gospel of John, which gives an account of Jesus's burial and describes multiple cloths, a separate cloth over the face called the "napkin" or "sudarium", tying and binding and a hundred pound weight of burial spices, myrrh, and aloes. Other details that are just incompatible with the Shroud of Turin, which is a simple, long stretch of linen fourteen feet long with what look like the front and back imprints of a crucified man; head-to-head front-and-back imprints, as if the cloth were draped under the body, folded over the head, then lay across the front of the body. Needless to say, the Jews did not bury their dead that way. And then we look—well, where was this shroud? Where did it show up? Well, it showed up in the middle of the fourteenth century. That's a long gap in the historical record. Showed up in the hands of a knight; a soldier of fortune, crusader, who would not say how he had acquired the most holy relic in Christendom.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: And we have a bishop's report to Pope Clement saying that, in fact, it was part of a faith-healing scam. People were hired to pretend they were sick, and then they would pretend they were cured when the Shroud was shown. As he said "so that money might be cunningly wrung from the pockets of unsuspecting pilgrims." The bishop went on to say in his report to Pope Clement that the truth of the fakery was attested to the artist who painted it.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: So, that's the earliest historical record. Then very briefly the Shroud was sampled by the McCrone Laboratories in Chicago, best in the world, and found that the image was made up of red ochre and vermillion tempera paint. And in 1998 was radiocarbon dated, and I like when I give talks; I say, "Do you imagine the three laboratories that did the carbon dating had results so similar it was like three arrows clustered in a bull's eye."

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: I ask my audience, "Do you imagine they gave a date a) the time of Christ, b) the time of the forger's confession, or c) the birthday of George Washington?", and invariably my audiences get it. I suggest that it's the time of the forger's confession. It is almost to the month.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: So if you just look at that prima facie evidence—and there's much, much more; common-sense points like the blood still being bright red, for example. Real blood would darken and blacken with age. It looks like the Shroud is clearly a fake. The pro-Shroud people, having the answer they want and starting with that, try to dismiss the other evidence, so they say "Well, the Gospels are open to interpretation." Where was the Shroud all that time? "Well, it was hidden away." The forger's confession? "Trumped up." Red blood?

P: What do they say about the DNA, Joe?

JN: Well there is no—

P: The carbon dating. I'm sorry. The carbon dating.

JN: Yes, the carbon dating. Well, one explanation was that Christ's radiant energy at the moment of resurrection had altered the carbon ratio. That, of course, takes it right out of the bounds of science.

P: Uh-huh.

JN: Others tried to suggest that the fire of 1532, which the Shroud survived and got charred—that that had altered the carbon ratio. In fact, scientists know that that would have had no effect, because the samples were taken away from any scorched areas and were purified and cleansed. Other theories were that they must have made a mistake and sample some kind of repair area when they took the sample of cloth. But in fact, that's not true either. These are all speculations or guesses or strained hypotheses.

P: Special pleading.

JN: Special pleadings. For example, when you point out, "Look, if you're going to equate this with the Gospel of John in the Bible", well John's gospel says that the burial spices—a hundred pound weight were mixed with the linens wrapping the body. Whether you believe in the Gospels or not, Jewish burial practices show that that would have been about what was done. And yet, not a speck of burial spice has been found on the Shroud. Well, the believers say, it might not have been powered and been mixed in the way you are imagining. It might have been bricks of aromatic spices placed near the body. It's just over and over; these far-fetched special pleadings for this. One explanation for this point, and another explanation for that, and still another for the other, and yet if you look at it just in a fair and impartial way with no agenda, you have to say that this very simple hypothesis; you can express it in one sentence: this is the work of a confessed medieval forger. And then just look how the evidence all falls into place: The blood is red because it's tempera paint. It failed forensic serological tests for blood because it's tempera paint. Tempera paint is what an artist would have used. It fits with the reported confession of an artist. The long, thin figure portrait on the cloth looks like French Gothic art. Why was there no history before... 1355 or so? Well, it didn't exist, because—

E: Right.

JN: —the artist hadn't painted it. And so on. That one simple sentence that accounts for the huge amount of prima facie evidence and corroborative evidence. Mutual points that you can test. You can take the carbon dating away and still demonstrate to a reasonable person quite clearly that the Shroud is a fake. And so on, but the believers have an agenda, and they've put out a lot of false information.

Crop Circles, Logic, and Occam's Razor (52:18)[edit]

S: There's an interesting point of logic; I mean, I agree with you that you have a simple and elegant explanation that accounts for all of the available evidence without introducing any new, unusual, or unlikely assumptions or explanations. Logically and scientifically, that's the most likely explanation. But I've heard UFOlogists turn that logic on its head by making a similar sounding but logically different claim. They claim that alien visitation is the simplest explanation for a wide variety of phenomena: crop circles, cattle mutilation, sightings, abduction stories, and that the skeptics are special pleading by having a separate explanation for each one of those phenomenon. So it sounds like a similar story, but the difference is that, in the case of the Shroud, each separate explanation is implausible, fantastical, and has no prior reason—

JN: Right.

S: —to assume that it's true, and in the case of the skeptical explanations for a variety of phenomena that are grouped underneath the rubric of UFO phenomenon, again, the skeptical explanation is well-established, mundane...

JN: Yes—

S: —has a prior probability, and the UFOlogists are making a huge unproven assumption, that aliens are actually visiting the Earth.

JN: Well, exactly, and just for example, just take one of those points that I've done a lot of work on: crop circles.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: I've been to England and examined crop circles there, and I've made crop circles for TV, and done studies of crop circle data that showed what kind of evolving phenomenon it was.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: And there's simply no doubt that human beings make crop circles. It's a fact that they do; that several people are known to have done it, and the evidence is clear. Now, does that mean that every single one is made the same way? Well, that's not as easy to prove, but it's more likely that the ones that are not known who made them or what made them are also made—

S: Right.

JN: —by people. If they look similar and have the same kind of characteristics and so forth, you can infer that they're all fake. But that some of them are, there's no doubt about it. To suggest that that's somehow evidence for extraterrestrials, when in fact, that evidence, that chunk of evidence, there's no extraterrestrial evidence in that at all.

S: Right.

JN: No evidence at all that makes that extraterrestrial. And then you move on to the other aspects that you mention, and so each one of those, on its own merits, has better explanations than extraterrestrials. And so the attempt to try to yoke them together and do a fast shell game with that argument is really just not convincing.

S: Yeah. But they actually invoke Occam's razor in their own defense, but I often use it as an example of how Occam's Razor is misunderstood or over-simplified to the point of being wrong. It's not the simplest explanation; it's the one with the fewest new assumptions.

JN: That's right! Exactly. That's why it's sometimes called the maximum parsimony.

S: Right.

JN: It's the one that has the fewest assumptions. In any case, it's not an absolute dogma of science. It's just a procedure or rule-of-thumb way of judging between hypotheses. But it's sure a very effective way for paranormal investigators to look at a lot of things as to simply look at the point of view of Occam's Razor. When you do that and apply it correctly, things like the Shroud of Turin and crop circles and—

S: Right.

JN: —flying saucers and so forth, lake monsters, all fail the test and the simpler explanations are misperceptions and hoaxes and other mundane explanations.

S: Right. When you think about it, you can come up with a simple explanation for a wide variety—for all phenomena if you are willing to make it up out of whole cloth and give it whatever properties it needs to have. I can claim that I'm God and this all exists because this is exactly the way I want it to be. That's one very simple explanation for any unlimited number of phenomena. But of course, it's premised on an implausible, huge assumption for which there is no evidence or independent reason to believe in it.

JN: Yes.

S: So again, we see that sort of abuse of logic in all the different paranormal claims. When dealing with true believers, they really do make the same three, four, five logical fallacies over and over and over again. They really—

JN: Absolutely.

S: The same human pitfalls. Just recently a reporter asked "How could you know about so many things?" because they're so many things you'd have to know about under the banner of skepticism. Well, I do do a lot of reading, because you need to have a certain amount of factual information so you don't get blind-sided by specific claims. But it's really not that hard; once you've mastered really a very small number of logical fallacies. Every paranormal claim, really; either it's an argument from ignorance or it's a false dichotomy or whatever. That's why we went out of our way to post the logical fallacies on our website.

JN: Yeah. The logical fallacy of the false dichotomy—I remember watching skeptics fall into that some years ago when we first started getting these alien abduction claims, and I had skeptics posing the question, and I think I was guilty of this a bit as well myself, so I'll just 'fess up here. A lot of us were asking the question: are these alien abductions—are these people crazy, or are they hoaxers—

S: Right.

JN: —or somebody looking for attention? And the fact is, that's a false dichotomy, because, in my experience, and I've met a lot of these people and talked with them and studied their life stories in other cases and gone over a lot of alien abduction data and claims. Most of them are not crazy at all. They're quite sane and normal, and they're not lying; they're not hoaxers. But... they are—some of them are fantasy-prone, easily hypnotized. They're over at sort of one end of the spectrum of, I guess, normalcy, and highly imaginative and easily hypnotized and prone to fantasize. You can lead them through hypnosis to "remembering things", and they're not remembering at all. Their imaginations are unleashed.

P: Right.

JN: And they may be having these waking dreams and so on. Most are sincere. They're not mentally ill. That false dichotomy doesn't apply. But even we skeptics have occasionally fallen into that trap, and I'm glad I wasn't in that trap very long—

S: Right.

JN: —as I began. And I think this is a good lesson, is that when we actually investigate—as opposed to just armchair try to dissect something or approach it analytically—if we actually get in the field or actually go do some work, pretty soon we'll see that things may be a little different or a little more complicated than we've imagined, and that we've falsely characterized them, and then we get to the truth, and those same principles apply to both sides, I think also. I know debunkers who sometimes do tend to start with the answer, which is a very skeptical answer. They may be right, but they're just—in my opinion there's no substitute for actual investigation.

S: Right.

JN: Let's just roll up our shirtsleeves and actually take a good look at a case as fair-mindedly as we can; look at it from all sides, and see if we can just explain it.

P: Right.

S: Absolutely.

JN: That's what I try to do.

S: The process is what's important, not the conclusion.

JN: That's right.

S: Getting the answer right is not the point. The point is that the process was valid every step of the way.

JN: That's right. So that's what I try to do and have labored for some thirty years now to actually investigate claims, and I'm occasionally accused of being a debunker or something... those people clearly have not read my works or they would know better.

S: It's an easy sort of cynical dismissive claim to make. "Oh, you're a debunker. You don't believe it." It's a non sequiter, saying—

JN: Yes, exactly.

S: We're talking about analyzing the evidence, the logic, the proper scientific method, and the response is, "Well, you're just a debunker." It's kind of like an ad hominum attack.

JN: Exactly, and it gets away from the actual evidence of let's say the Shroud of Turin—

S: Right.

JN: —the tempera paint, the carbon dating, the forger's confession.

S: Right.

JN: Those facts are there regardless of what anyone thinks of my bias or my attitude or anything else. It's those facts that need to be properly seen.

S: Right. Address the actual factual statements that are being made. Not some distraction. That always strikes me, and the one thing that I'm most irritated about when dealing with believers is the intellectual dishonesty. When you make a rebuttal or you make a specific point that is factual or logically based, you need to account for that. You need to have a response to it. But often they don't have a response to it. They either just make an irrelevant comment—and then they don't correct themselves. They continue to make the same errors, despite the fact that they've already been corrected, and they don't have a substantive rebuttal. They're persisting. Like you say, you correct the ghost hunters and say "Well, this blob of light can be explained with this," and they just keep calling it a ghost orb, despite the fact that they've been corrected on it numerous times.

JN: And referring to the these as "energy", when in fact no energy known to science would survive—

S: Would behave that way.

JN: —and behave that way.

S: Yeah.

JN: It's ridiculous.

S: Right. I work in an academic institution. I deal with scientists every day, and it's stark; just the difference in the way scientists behave and think and approach questions and data, and the way the paranormal believers approach it. It really is such a stark difference. It's like, really? Not to be mean, but it really leaves me with the impression that these are really like children playing at being scientists, and they have absolutely no concept of what they are doing.

JN: That's right. I think those ghost clubs are just—you're exactly right. My impression—I've known some of them personally, been with them on some of their jaunts. They seem to be very immature. They're not scientifically oriented at all. They're using the most naïve thought processes and engaging in logical fallacies and things that would just be laughable were they not being taken seriously, at least by a lot of people and by the news media looking for an interesting story.

S: Right.

JN: They're getting a whole lot more attention than they deserve, because they're getting sort of a free ride from the media, which ought to be holding their feet to the fire—

P: True.

JN: —asking them more difficult questions.

S: Right. Journalists who take a credulous approach to the paranormal or paranormal claims really are the villains in all of this, in my opinion.

JN: Mmm-hm.

S: Because they're really betraying their profession.

JN: Yes, and with today's mass media, of course, just one false TV program can create a great deal of mischief that's difficult to ever undo. We have increasing numbers of people misinformed about the nature of ghosts and crop circles and so forth. And just very, very difficult to clean up after them, as it were.

S: It takes a lot more time and effort to correct a misconception than to create one.

"Dad, Grand-dad, and Father-In-Law." (1:04:59)[edit]

P: Joe, as we come to near the close of our podcast, I think we'd be remiss if we didn't mention another one of the personas on your website; the one entitled "Dad, Grand-dad, and Father-In-Law." I think something quite astounding and very special happened to you in the fall of 2003. Could you share that with our audience tonight?

JN: Sure. I had gone through life having had a failed marriage and various failed relationships, and then two years ago, suddenly learned that I was a father, had a beautiful daughter and two grandsons I never knew about. Yes, we did the DNA; the tests were 99.98% certain; in other words, good enough for everyone except the O. J. Simpson jury.


JN: I knew, as soon as I saw even a picture of my daughter, that she was my daughter.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: As a consequence, I have a new life, and I feel more like a whole person. I've written some about this, and the final irony is that her mother, who was my college sweetheart and who left me in 1966 to go back to her previous boyfriend—she and I have now reconnected, and after more failed marriages, thirty-nine years later, we're engaged. I'm a professional skeptic, and I don't know if I believe this story.

P: (laughs)

JN: It's true.

P: Congratulations are still in order, Joe.

JN: Strange but true, and it's just great, and I'm of course now writing stories for my grandsons, and sending gifts to my daughter and so on, and it's just great. I highly recommend it.

E: What did they think about what you do, Joe? What was their reaction... about your career?

JN: Well I think intrigued... and bemused by it. One interesting thing was that my daughter mentioned that she, after all these years, for her thirty-six years had gone by, and suddenly she challenged her mother as to "Who's my daddy?" and her mother said "Why do you ask?", and she said "I don't know. It just came into my mind." And she was talking to me about intuition, and I said "Well, honey, your father's a militant skeptic and certainly doesn't believe in ESP or anything like that. There's no good evidence for it, but surely something is happened. Something happened. And we should explore it together and see." And we have done that, and it turns out that she had a lot of clues. For example, her eyes look nothing like her mother's or her father's. If you see us together you see she has the family eyes; in fact, even more profoundly than I do. I think that she had several clues—I've written an article about this—several clues that I believe she processed sort of subconsciously.

S: Mmm-hm.

JN: I think she didn't just unconsciously say "this times this times this." She just sort of holistically just kind of just one day it just came to her. And that's sort of the definition of intuition; the real intuition, the kind that's not mystical and mumbo-jumbo, but the real kind of intuition where you seem to know something or you think you know something, and you don't know why. And sometimes you're right; you do know it because you picked up maybe on someone's subtle look that they gave. You're hardly conscious of it. You haven't really focused on it, but you put a few little things together, and I think that's what happened. Anyway, it's changed my life, and it's wonderful.

S: That's called abduction, by the way. That's a known neurological or psychological phenomenon; processing without conscious awareness of the processing that's going on. The answer comes to your mind like "Eureka! Oh, yeah. The pieces fit together. The pattern was found, and 'Boom!'"

JN: Yes! I didn't know there was a name for it.

B: A-B?

S: Abduction. Yep. A-B.

JN: Not abducted by aliens, just abducted.


S: Abduction. Not "deduction" or "induction," but "abduction."

JN: Abduction.

B: Interesting. A good word.

S: Well, Joe, this was a pleasure. Thank you so much for being on the Skeptics' Guide.

JN: My pleasure. Always.

S: We hope to have you back again in the future.

JN: No doubt.

S: Keep up the good work.

JN: I will be delighted to come back.

S: Great! Bob, Perry...

B: Happy Halloween.

S: Happy Halloween. Good haunting this Halloween.

JN: Same here.

S: Bob, Perry, and Evan, thanks for being with us again.

E: Steve, thank you.

B: My pleasure.

P: And we'll see you all next week, everybody.

S: And until next time, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes, see our website at

Today I Learned[edit]

  • A group of swimming otters can look like the Ogopogo monster in Lake Okanagan[1]
  • Bob was dismissed from jury duty when he said he was researching human memory fallibility
  • An alternate term for Occam's razor is "maximum parsimony"[2]


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