Skeptical Terms, Phrases, and Concepts

Alternative Healthcare
Also known as "complementary" healthcare, these umbrella terms cover hundreds of therapies some of which can be considered to be pseudoscientific or supernatural. Examples include, but certainly are not limited to, aromatherapy, foot reflexology, "psychic" surgery, acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, apricot pits, visualization, colon hydrotherapy, and herbalism. Alternative healthcare methods tend to avoid true double-blind studies that would rule out the placebo effect and prove their actual effectiveness. Although many diseases and ailments resolve themselves on their own without any treatment at all, alternate healthcare methods take credit for any apparent cures. If the therapy doesn't work or have any apparent effect, there is always the option of saying the recipient received the therapy too late or didn't have enough faith in the treatment. Of course scientific investigation may prove some currently unconventional approaches to be genuinely valuable.
Atlantis
Of myths which just won't die, this must be the second oldest. A utopian land described by Plato, Atlantis is supposed by some to be a real but now vanished island or continent in the Atlantic. Plato may have based his story, which he states is untrue, on the collapse of the Minoan civilization after the eruption of Thera. This hasn't stopped cultists from supposing Atlantis to be the source of Western civilization. An alternative version places it in the Pacific where it is known as Mu.
Ancient Astronauts
Extraterrestrials postulated to have visited the Earth in prehistoric or early historic times who showed early man how to make things like pyramids, the Zimbabwe palace, and the Nazca lines. Other versions have them creating modern man by genetic modification of apes. This theory is popular with those who believe other people's ancestors were too primitive to achieve anything without white men to show them how.
Astrology
The belief that human character and behavior are somehow influenced by the position of the planets at the moment of birth. No one has ever been able to suggest a plausible mechanism for this influence. Astrologers are fundamentally cold readers who use a different set of props. When scientifically tested, astrology invariably fails to show any predictive ability.
Bermuda Triangle
Many "mysterious" disappearances and deaths have been attributed to the sea area encompassed by Miami, Bermuda and Puerto Rico. Research has found nothing unusual about this area and the circumstances surrounding the incidents have turned out to be quite ordinary. Some of the quoted incidents occurred outside the Triangle but were included in published reports to make a more convincing story. Not to be confused with the Penrose Triangle shown on the cover that we have adopted to symbolize things which look superficially plausible but which, on closer examination, turn out to be impossible.
Burden of Proof
When there is a disagreement, it's sometimes the case that one side is expected to prove its case, and if it can't, the other side wins by default. The side that must provide proof is said to have the burden of proof. If one position is surprising, or unorthodox, or if it runs counter to other well-accepted beliefs, then that position tends to have the burden of proof. Thus, for example, people who claim that we have been regularly visited by aliens from outer space have the burden of proof." (From Robert M. Martin, The Philosopher's Dictionary, 2nd ed. Broadview Press, 1994, p.38).
Coincidence
An unusual or remarkable occurrence of events at the same time or in the same way. Although coincidences are bound to happen, people who use magical thinking attribute coincidences to some paranormal or supernatural power.
Cold Reading
Technique used by an assortment of mediums, psychics, astrologers, palm readers, Tarot card readers, tea leaf readers and others. The reader assesses the speech, dress and mannerisms of the "sitters" to get an idea of their lifestyle and cultural orientation. Then a series of vague and general statements, usually complementary, are made. The reader waits for positive responses from the sitters and builds on them, drawing out more information from the sitters and feeding it back to them as if they had miraculously divined it. The sitters actually end up doing most of the work of connecting the reader's vague statements to events in their lives. The strength of the practice is that the sitters tend to remember the "hits" and forget all of the misses.
Conspiracy Theories
Theories to the effect that people are conspiring to cover up information regarding other-worldly phenomena. These are sometimes resorted to by paranormalists when they can find no evidence to back up their claims. The greater the lack of evidence, the greater the conspiracy. This is a very efficient maneuver considering the minimal effort required to maintain it. The supposed great UFO conspiracy would have had to include all of NASA, the Air Force, the FBI, the CIA, other civilian and military intelligence agencies, members of Congress and the Executive Branch of government, state and local officials and police. The likelihood of such a large group of people keeping such a big secret for so long is not great. Any evidence against the paranormal claim, no matter how logical or well substantiated, is simply labeled as part of the conspiracy.
Double Blind Studies
A way of controlling or eliminating accidental or deliberate bias in a research study. For example, when investigating a drug treatment, each of a number of subjects will be given either the drug or an inert substance. The study is "double blind" when neither the subject nor the researcher knows which subject got which substance.
Falsifiability
The ability to prove a statement to be false. If a statement can't be proven false, then it has no meaning. For instance, the statement "Dogs can't fly" would be proven false by producing a dog that could fly. The statement, "Ghosts can fly," is a different story. Being unable to produce, assess or measure a ghost, there is no way to falsify this claim and it becomes meaningless.
False Memory Syndrome
Some people think that unpleasant memories can be buried in the subconscious and that these "memories" can be recovered through therapy. Recovered "memories" are very unreliable, prone to distortion, fabrication and the bias of the therapist. Compared to other therapists, those who specialize in finding hidden memories recover a disproportionate number of these memories. One of the prime tools used to "recover" memories is hypnosis which can turn out to be the therapist "leading the witness." The most unfortunate and disturbing aspect of this is that the client (victim?) cannot tell the difference between a real memory and one that has been fabricated. These techniques have resulted in charges of alleged childhood sexual abuse. They have found evidence of multiple personalities and have also prompted incredible numbers of UFO abduction and satanic ritual abuse claims. See the The "False Memory Syndrome Foundation It is the purpose of the Foundation: to seek the reasons for the spread of False Memory Syndrome; to work for the prevention of new cases of False Memory Syndrome; and to aid the victims of False Memory Syndrome, and to bring their families into reconciliation.
Free Energy
Reputable scientists know that no device can generate energy without an equivalent input from some source such as burning fuel. Free energy promoters, who range from out-and- out hucksters to people with some scientific credentials, allege their devices will supply unlimited energy with no fuel input. They claim to take energy from the air, or to have electric motors which are more than 100% efficient, or to generate nuclear energy in a beaker of water. They have an uncanny ability to make investors' dollars disappear but always have some excuse for not showing a working model.
The Full Moon
People notice the moon more when it is full because of its higher light output. If something unusual occurs on the night of the full moon, people have been conditioned to make a connection. Equally strange occurrences on non-full moon nights aren't considered, so correlations that are against the full moon concept aren't made. Studies of crime, homicides, suicides and even hockey fights have shown no increases in aberrant behavior at the full moon.
Homeopathy
Quasi-pharmaceutical system based on a dilution process. A substance with a known effect is combined with a liquid, usually water, in a container that is shaken and pounded on a table. The shaking and pounding is to help the liquid "remember" what the effect of the original substance was. One tenth of the new solution is kept and mixed with nine parts more of liquid and the shaking and pounding are done again. This process is repeated from 10 to 24 times. At this highest level, it is possible that not a single molecule of the original substance remains. Homeopaths claim that the greater the dilution, the greater the potency. (See also "placebo".)
Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations
Occurring in the times just before falling asleep and right before waking up respectively, these rare natural phenomena are also known as waking dreams. Mistaken for reality because of their vividness, they account for many encounters with ghosts, ETs, angels, and the like. An important feature is that at the conclusion of the encounter, instead of reacting either with panic or elation, the people just fall back to sleep. They also sometimes report feeling paralyzed -- a common part of the dream cycle.
Near Death Experiences
All of the events, sensations, and the similarities claimed by people who have had these experiences can be explained by physiological means. Although the experience that some people have can be profound and change their outlook on life its source is within the brain. "The joy and peace are consistent because of the natural opiates (endorphins) released under stress. The tunnel, light and noises depend on the structure of the brain's cortex and what happens to it when it is deprived of oxygen or is affected by disinhibition (uncontrolled firing of brain cells) and random activity. The out of body experience (OBE) is the brain's way of dealing with a breakdown in the body image and model of reality. The life review occurs because the endorphins cause random activation in the temporal lobe and limbic system where memories are organized. The same effect leads to the breakdown of time and its relationship to self. And it is this dissolution of self that accounts for the mystical experiences and aftereffects" (from Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live: Near Death Experiences, 1993, Prometheus). The NDE seems "real" because it is the best interpretation of reality a dying brain can produce under the circumstances.
Occam's Razor
The principle attributed to William of Occam that states one shouldn't extend the assumptions used to explain any event or object beyond what is necessary. Also called the Principle of Parsimony. As an example, it has been suggested that touching an extra- terrestrial space craft caused liver damage, which we "know" because a number of people who reported touching a UFO were found to suffer from cirrhosis of the liver. Occam's Razor suggests that there may be a more "parsimonious" and earthly explanation of the UFO reports and the liver damage.
Paranormal
Beyond the power of today's natural science to explain, but may be explicable by an expanded science of the future.
Placebo
An inert substance or treatment substituted for the real thing. It works on the human mind and its expectations. Placebos have been proven to induce sleep and relieve pain, anxiety and many other symptoms. In an experiment, syrup of Ipecac, a drug used to induce vomiting, was given to patients with nausea and vomiting under the pretense that it was a strong anti-vomiting drug. For some of these people, it was very effective.
Precognition
The third of the classical paranormal trio; telepathy and telekinesis being the other two. The impression that one has received information of a future event. Impressions which turn out to be correct are remembered, others are forgotten. If true, it would force us to reconsider our familiar notions of causation.
Project Blue Book
The official conclusion (not the TV show version) of this extensive 1947-1969 Air Force study was that not a single UFO sighting was a threat to US national security, nor was there any evidence of any technology beyond current scientific knowledge or of any extraterrestrial origin.
Pseudoscience
False science that uses the jargon of science to sound convincing. Some examples would be astrology, perpetual motion machines, phrenology, and numerology.
Replicability
The ability of an experimental result to be repeated under controlled circumstances by independent researchers using the same procedures. In this way, mere chance occurrences, bias or fraud can be reduced if not eliminated. Not surprisingly, paranormal claims tend to collapse under these conditions.
Roswell Incident and the MJ-12
The Roswell Incident is the supposed crash of an alien spacecraft, complete with alien bodies (1, 2, 3, or 5, depending on which "eyewitness" you believe), in 1947 in Roswell, NM. The government supposedly confiscated all of the bodies and the craft. What did happen was the crash of a top secret surveillance balloon considered high tech for its time. It was called Project Mogul and was to be used to spy on the Soviet nuclear program at a time when the Cold War was in its early days and fear levels were high. The MJ-12 or Majestic 12 is a fictitious gathering of military and government leaders, including Harry Truman, charged with hiding the Roswell Incident and other UFO "encounters" from the public. The only "evidence" of the MJ-12 is some documents that were found to be fraudulent by Philip Klass. They include an obvious photocopy forgery of Truman's signature.
Science
The process of discovering the nature of reality through investigation, observation, measurement, experimentation, and theoretical interpretation. A method, not a dogma, its findings can be applied by anyone.
SLAPP suits
Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Frivolous and harassing lawsuits designed to silence public criticism as opposed to actually recovering damages. The last resort of the disproven.
Supernatural
Permanently and necessarily beyond the power of any natural science to explain. The supernatural almost always implies the work of an agent not subject to natural laws such as a demon, angel, or ghost.
Telepathy
The theory that one can communicate directly from mind to mind without a physical link. Telepathy has been taken seriously and has been tested by many scientists, for example, by the late J. B. Rhine of Duke University. Historically, most experiments which showed positive results have eventually turned out to be flawed in their design or to have had their results tampered with. None have been successfully replicated. Not to be confused with clairvoyance which is seeing distant or hidden objects without the help of another mind.
Telekinesis
The theory that the mind can influence the behavior of physical objects without contact. Sometimes confused, particularly on TV "mysteries" shows, with experimental control systems which pick up electrical signals with scalp contacts. Since no one has been able to do something simple like rotating a suspended pointer in a vacuum jar, telekinesis has generally been tested by looking for unusual deviations in random events, for example, by throwing dice.
Therapeutic Touch
A technique becoming popular in the nursing field. A person's "energy field" which radiates six to eight inches is felt, assessed, and corrected to heal the subject. Although a TT therapist claims to be able to feel this energy field, it can't be otherwise observed or measured in any way. Efforts to provide scientific support for TT have so far been unsuccessful. Emily Rosa's research project, reported in JAMA, confirmed that even an eleven-year-old can show that TT practitioners can't detect human energy fields.
Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs)
- Things that seem to be an aircraft of some sort, but do not seem to be natural phenomena or human artifacts. These are sometimes thought to be of extraterrestrial origin. The key word here is unidentified. Just because something is unidentified doesn't mean you should jump to the conclusion that it is of "alien" intelligence. Common sources of UFO sighting are planets, stars, weather phenomena, aircraft, weather balloons, satellites, perceptual errors, simple mistakes, and hoaxes. So far there isn't any genuine evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations let alone of their ability to travel light-years to visit our humble planet.

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