Dr. Wallace Sampson – Science Meets Alternative Medicine

February 24, 2006

Dr. Wallace Sampson serves as editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council Against Health Fraud. He has served as Chief of Medical Oncology at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, and is clinical Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Sampson is an expert on unscientific medical systems and alternative medicine claims, and teaches the critical analysis of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Stanford University. He is co-editor of the book Science Meets Alternative Medicine.

In this discussion with DJ Grothe, Dr. Sampson explores current trends in alternative medicine and offers the scientific alternative.

Also in this episode, Tom Flynn asks Did You Know?, listing facts about the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Point of Inquiry contributor Benjamin Radford explores the use and abuse of labyrinths, and in the first of a two-part series, DJ Grothe talks with CSICOP’s Joe Nickell about real-life ghost-hunting.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 24th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most basic beliefs of our culture, focusing on three research areas first, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we look at what’s called alternative medicine. And third, on point of inquiry, we concentrate on the intersection of religion and science in our society on issues surrounding secularism and humanism, a nonbelief. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquiries relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we will be joined by Dr. Wallace Sampson of Stanford University, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Cyclopes senior research fellow Joe Niccolò in the first of a two part series on investigating the paranormal. Ghost hunting, to be specific. And Benjamin Radford will share his regular segment, Media Mythmakers. But first, Tom Flynn asks, did you know? 

Did you know that the U.S. federal government’s 2006 budget includes roughly 123 million dollars for the study and promotion of alternative medicine? Did you know that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, funded more than 12 hundred projects at some 260 research institutions last year. Did you know that 62 percent of people in a recent survey of 31000 Americans responded that they regularly use alternative medicine? Did you know that the heavily promoted alternative medicine combination of glucosamine and conjoin is about as effective as a placebo for most people with arthritis? According to a major national study released this week headed by University of Utah researcher. 

With all the endless promotion of herbal remedies and alternative therapies, acupuncture, aroma therapy, magnet therapy, therapeutic touch, homoeopathy, naturopathy, all of these. How can the average consumer find objective scientific information evaluating these products and treatments? My guest today on Point of inquiry, Dr. Wallace Sampson, is an expert on this sort of stuff. He serves as the editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and he’s a member of the board of directors of the National Council Against Health Fraud. He served as chief of medical oncology at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and is clinical professor emeritus of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Sampson is an expert on unscientific medical systems and alternative medical claims and teaches the critical analysis of complementary and alternative medicine at Stanford University. He’s coeditor of the book Science Meets Alternative Medicine. Welcome to a point of inquiry, Dr. Sampson. Thank you. Dr. Sampson, a growing number of Americans are increasingly using what’s called complementary and alternative medicine. Salesmen like Kevin Trudeau have their late night infomercials and push millions of copies of their books touting nonmedical cures for everything from high blood pressure and diabetes to cancer and heart disease. People report that these methods work not only better than scientific methods or what’s called evidence based medicine, but that scientific medicine is actually bad for patients. You’re here today to help us get into this subject. 

So why don’t we begin by having you define complementary and alternative medicine, complementary and alternative to terms that are really recent adventure. They are actually slogan for marketing. They didn’t exist 25 years ago. 

That the were holistic medicine say it’s making it more spiritual. 

What you will have to reincorporate principles that have been perfected a way with the age of the other was the right require everyone reflecting away personal, rather magical spirituality, the subjective aspect of human nature. 

Well, that’s right. That’s right. 

The I’ve heard of people thought that this was an opportunity to capitalize on the hope and to regain legitimacy for what was essentially called quackery, which in 1911 and thereabouts were also formally excised from the scientific medical. So it really is a slogan, a marketing term, to reincorporate what we were calling quackery up until about twenty five years ago. 

Sounds a little like intelligent design being the renaming of creationism. 

Well, it’s exactly the same thing, of course, that goes on in life all the time, politics, all of this kind of thing, sloganeering statement to sell an idea. And they all have to be put in acceptable terms. Depending on the audience you speak to, you tailor the term or the slogan and hope that it sells and they’ve been fairly successful. 

Well, the term quackery seems to bring to my mind fraud or just out and out huckstering alternative medicine. Complementary medicine seems to bring to my mind these Neisser feelings that they that they aren’t A.I. health, they’re just maybe alongside traditional medicine. What’s the difference between complementary medicine and alternative medicine? 

Or is there it’s in the word. There’s no difference in the reality. 

There’s no difference in what you say about whether things are working. It’s been how that’s been the word that one describe. And that’s exactly what the problem is, essentially a postmodern maneuver in which you change people’s perception by changing the language. That’s what a lot of what Baradi who code from other moderate philosophy that they would be what they claim could be done in reality. They could change reality. So they said that’s what they have done. 

So you’re saying complementary medicine, alternative medicine. They’re the same thing. What’s integrative medicine? 

Another slogan. And it was invented, I believe, by Andrew Weil in Arizona in order to bypass entirely the scientific method and any rational thinking integrative means you do it anyway. 

Even when there is no evidence that it work or there is evidence that it doesn’t work, you do it anyway. I’ve called integrative or integrative medicine rather than doing it instead of or doing it in addition to you. You actually re name the thing, though, that science who’ve become irrelevant that matter when you prove it or not, you just do it. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can receive a discounted copy of Dr. Sampson’s book, Science Meets Alternative Medicine on our Web site. Point of Inquiry. Dot or. Dr. Sampson, the number of Americans seeking complementary and alternative medicine, it seems to be increasing. Is that true? Are more and more people using it? 

No, as a matter of fact, that’s another marketing ploy, the way they. 

They got this specific facility with increasing by by adding in a number of methods that people use on their own that have been in use for centuries. They included prayer, formal exercise, weight reduction clinic and things like that in their definition of alternative medicine. And suddenly found that 34 percent now 44 percent of people are using it within a period of one year. Actually, in nineteen hundred nineteen ten, close to 100 percent of people did that because there was so little in the way of scientific medicine. And nineteen seventy seven, a Roper poll showed twenty seven percent. We’re using it for 27 percent to 34 percent. It’s not very large, especially when you change the wording of the question. 

OK, so we’ve defined alternative medicine and you’re saying that it’s not exponentially growing in the numbers of people who are using it. We’ve defined alternative medicine. Why don’t you define for me what scientific medicine is? It seems like a simple question, but when someone out there is saying this is medical, how do you know it’s medical? How do you know it’s medicine? 

You know, that’s very good. And basic question, which many people can’t answer. Well, science, of course, is the human endeavor. So it’s full of false evidence to put that and to get to the heart of a matter of something real, real cause, no real treatment that really works. There are lots of errors that are made along the way. But our job is to find out what those errors are and correct them. That’s the scientific method. So the way it works today is that certain number of people do what’s called epidemiologic study or they say take a look at a section of the world population and see whether disorder there or not or savior there and so forth, and compare it to another section in another part of the world or the same part of the world, a different population. And that’s called a cross-sectional study. That’s epidemiology. That’s the first way you find out whether there’s something worthwhile there to study. Either there’s a difference between the risk that there’s no difference, you drop it. And if there is a difference, you go on and you do what’s called a clinical trial and you put people on one or an observation in one condition and then just observe a normal control population without doing anything or give them some other method. And you compare them and then you analyze them specifically. But the whole thing depends that you’ve made an accurate, accurate evaluation in the first place. In other words, you can’t just study anything. You want to study the relationship of small dog, the large dog, and see if there’s a major difference in the reproductive rate or something like that. That’s not worthwhile to study because, you know, the dog species we could grab and they can interbreed and so forth. What what useful information would come of that? But that’s the kind of study being done in the alternative and complementary medicine. They’re taking implausible propositions for things that we know already don’t work because we we’ve studied them in various other ways. 

And then they’re applying clinical trials and there are hundreds of millions of dollars every year. And careers are being made. This is the coolibah. 

So the 2006 budget we heard earlier in the show, before your interview began, Dr. Sampson, that the U.S. federal government’s 2006 budget includes roughly 123 million dollars for the study of and the promotion of alternative medicine. And I take it easy. You’re saying this is a waste of money? 

Of course, they can claim that this isn’t a waste of money because they’re finding out certain things don’t work. For instance, recently they show Mecum Asia doesn’t work. And now they’ve shown that glucosamine can grow up and don’t work for us to work. 

Right. So there’s some value in showing these things don’t work. But they knew they wouldn’t work in the first place. The problem is they won’t call any of them to explain why these things probably won’t work or why they’re wasting the money. 

You were talking about scientific medicine earlier and now about how alternative medicine is so hit and miss and, you know, it won’t work from the beginning, but isn’t it the same in in medicine? Isn’t medicine sometimes just hit and miss? Don’t we sometimes just serendipitously figure out that, oh, this thing cures that in medicine? 

Yeah, well, there’s a difference in what’s being proposed there. They’re sitting there, which means complete random study of something. I mean, they’re randomly selected. And there’s a difference between that and studying something where you’ve made an observation and you want to see what is could go over to a different thing. Not it. And most of medicine, of course, all given everything the medical science is directly by using accurate observation, insightful observation. We’ve been preceded by not a bunch of of ignoramuses. We’ve been preceded by geniuses, people who develop the anatomy of a spectrum of the human body and physiology, discovery of lab extract. The very circuitry to treat certain conditions were various people who made these observations. They went ahead and proved that these were not random observations about taking something like Sweet in the garden and finding out if you’re careful with it. 

You don’t do that. What you do is you take all the information you have at hand in the first place and you study the thing that seems to have some validity to this study, everything or every relationship with an infinite number of relationships, because it seems like there are a lot of people getting involved in alternative medicine these days, not just alternative medicine practitioners. 

Even the televangelist Pat Robertson is now selling something called Queen’s Jelly, which is the food that worker bees produce for the queen bee in a hive. And he says that it has miraculous healing powers and that Queen’s jelly lets the queen bee live for six years instead of six weeks, which is how long worker bees live. Then he argues that the same substance can have similar effects if people eat it. That’s just one, I think. Silly example. Can you give me some other examples of alternative medicine therapies that people use? 

Well, the one that anyone chiropractic based on equally erroneous observation that a grocer cracked down would make a better claim that he could hear right after that. 

They have no basic anatomy or rationality of any kind at the time. And, you know, even medicine experts move out of the home and now it’s being tightly regulated in Canada, where Chiropractic has been shown to cause death and some people will share the same maneuver with you. Manipulation of the neck of death and paralysis by stroke and also by local professionals, while according to that, both of those things happen. We’ve known that for decades. Go back to the literature. There are hundreds of cases describe this dating back to the 1930s. And there is no go zone. 

What are the most harmful examples of alternative medicine, in your opinion? 

Well, that’s hard because it isn’t so much the method as it is that people do it. 

And there’s a rogue Gallery of Charlotte things, but there are also people in medical school who actually believe these things. They had a apartment. You have days of medical school. Matter of fact, the Council of the Association of American Medical Colleges had prominent alternative, have talked to them a year, 2000, and they’ve never invited the. So we say skeptic that the people who really know what’s going on to give the same kind of tone. 

In other words, they’re all put it this way. This whole system is a social personal growth story that generated brainwash, which is what the social books are written about. 

One of the original was Robert Mackays classical book written in 1850 about extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. He described stock market bubble land buying bubble tulip mania in Holland. Offer the social delusional movement. You know, you can go on the politics of fear, communism, all these kinds of things, or people start to believe things that aren’t true. 

And you’re saying alternative medicine is one of those things? 

Well, it’s probably in terms of dollars, that’s probably the most massive move in social evolution ever. Although I to say what we’re communism, but the capability of people to be deluded because of social pressure and claim. Quite remarkable. Quite remarkable. How do you reward to that? Well, over what the old inviting everybody would have been better off if it hadn’t happened. Take a look at today around the Middle East. What goes on in China? These are major political movements that depend on people believing what they’re told, believing things that are untrue. You’re arguing they believe things that are untrue. 

You mentioned the profit motive a moment ago, or if you didn’t mention the profit motive, you mentioned money. Now, I’ll ask you a question about the profit motive. I’ve heard the argument that scientific medicine. Call it evidence based medicine, if that’s your point of view, that those kinds of doctors resist the growing alternative medicine movement because it’s it’s kind of cutting in on their action. The large pharmaceutical companies, Big Pharma, as it’s called, resist the herbal supplement movement because it’s a multi-million dollar industry. What do you say about that charge that that oh, you you skeptics, you have vested interest. You’re just you don’t want your action being cut in on. 

Well, first, take the obvious and running with it and making a false statement. It’s not quite a straw man argument because there’s an element of truth to it. Of course, scientific doctors don’t want their career ruined by things that don’t work. So it’s partly true statement, but very true of executive greed. 

In fact, there has been no impact of the alternative medicine movement on the income or position that we know of. The major impact of the matter. Control by the federal government, by the federal government over Medicare. But not because of all those who have no basis, although the argument appeals always from those who are feeling that that might happen. 

What do you think about the notion about Big Pharma being threatened by the multi-million dollar herbal supplement movement? 

To the contrary, most of Big Pharma is buying up while we’re supplement companies. The marketing responsible for the marketing, the marketing of vitamin C with still number two or three on the list, their popularity, 20 or 30 years of being number one. Most of it made by virtue. Welcome. They made fortunes on big business. These are not all operations. 

I’d like to remind our listeners that you can get a discounted copy of Dr Sampson’s book. Science Meets Alternative Medicine on our website Point of inquiry dot org. I’d like to get back. Herbal remedies for a moment. You can go into any drugstore now and see a whole shelf of herbal remedies. Even though it’s a pharmacy, those I talked to about this say that herbal remedies aren’t backed by clinical trials. But isn’t there a lot of wisdom to be gained from folk traditions? I mean, isn’t that how we learned about things like quinine? 

Yes, it is. And as a matter of fact, Quinter is not the only one. It’s been estimated that somewhere up to perhaps 50 percent of modern drugs we use have their origins in empirical observation of plants and their extracts of various disorders just in history. But there’s a difference here. On the one hand, we have an observation made and repeated and after repeated observations, knowing that then there’s a high likelihood that there’s something working, then going ahead and extracting that active principle and purifying it in a scientific way. That’s called pharmacology, testing it further on animals and testing in humans, arriving at the right dosage, testing it a number of different conditions and knowing which ones for which it’ll work, which it will. And that’s called pharmacology and clinical trials and science. That’s medical science. Now, there’s a big difference between that and making one empirical observation of history. Writing it down and telling everybody about it and then becoming a folk tradition with no evidence and no science behind it, no organized observations, no way of testing it in the organization, and then going ahead and marketing it in the health food store. In a pharmacy. 

That is false. That’s simply false promotion. And there are laws against things like that in other fields. But because of the popularity of the social movements that have been going on in alternative medicine, you they can get away with it. 

So you’re saying herbal remedies are not backed by clinical trials? 

They probably probably none of them work. When I say that we take the top 10 sellers and you take a look and see what they’re promoted for and you can’t find any really good reason why they’re being promoted there, they really don’t work. 

Even if this or that herbal remedy doesn’t. Actually, work doesn’t actually provide any positive medicinal effect, doesn’t it at least provide hope, mere hope that the patient will improve? Doesn’t hope in and of itself have a healing effect? I guess what I’m talking about here is the benefits of the placebo effect. 

Yeah, well, you have to back up a minute. Hope is the source of the success of all comic con artists. Let’s start with that and talk about things like healing, which have no meaning. Really, anything that really heals means there’s something that you can measure. That gets better. Better than doing nothing better than a placebo. So that can’t be demonstrated. And you have a false claim, the con equivalent to a second. Is there such a thing as a placebo effect? I think we’re pretty much all sure now that what is called a placebo effect is a mixture of any one of 16 different psychological mechanisms that have been investigated by cognitive psychologists for decades. And they’re all written down in their books and their own journals. Well, outline, but it’s just that someone hasn’t taken the trouble to look them up and apply them to the medicine. Now, I should say I shouldn’t say no one has. Because several people have actually done that, but they’re ignored. There’s another factor to alter this, to publish this material in Alternative Medicine Journal about 10 years ago. And nobody paid attention. We did. One of our authors, very biased Dean, wrote a highly effective article for our journal commenting on that particular paper. And there’ve been others have mentioned the fact them. And then there’s a Danish group who looked into that, historically, looked into all the papers comparing various methods to placebos and to nothing, and found that there was no difference between giving a placebo and doing nothing. And that that paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine about three years ago. Quite famous. Right at the present time, we have no evidence that there’s such a thing as a real placebo effect. 

Dr. Sampson, we’ve discussed alternative medicine, its problems, some solutions that you’ve proposed. What should our listeners do if they’re interested in learning more about alternative medicine, or especially if they’re alarmed by some of the trends in alternative medicine that you’ve talked about? What can they do to make a difference? 

Very difficult to say. We wonder if all the work that we put into the study of the system in the past 30 years has made a difference. Maybe a little bit, because we’re expanding our knowledge of how these things work and social delusions and learning more ourselves about scientific method with what we can trust and what we can. We haven’t gone into that much, but that’s a whole other field to explore why some of our scientific clinical trials turn out positive. And there’s a reason for that when there is no positivity there. But I think it’s a it’s a difficult thing to study now because we haven’t formalized all of our observations into adjustable form. I think a good place to start might be that book Science Meets Alternative Medicine, although it’s now going on 10 years old, much of this stuff is still applicable and valid. Take a look at Quackwatch dot.com run by Stephen Barrett and developed by Stephen Barrett. It has all the information you need to know on every alternative method. And with all the warnings and all the side effects of all the things you want to avoid. 

Dr. Samsun, friend of mine, who’s kind of invested in the alternative medicine movement when mentioning that site, Quackwatch dot org says, well, that’s just a front for big pharmacy or for these medical organizations. Of course, they want to discredit alternative medicine because they have vested interests. What do you say to that? 

Well, of course, Quackwatch receives no funding or other help from any organization, whether pharmacy or medical at all. It’s completely independent organization. And your friend who believes this is simply believing another promotional slogan and why hate to put it that way? Because it sounds so negative, but that’s what it is. It’s a falsehood. 

Dr. Sampson, thank you for being on point of inquiry. 

You’re quite welcome. 

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Now, point of inquiry contributor Benjamin Redford talks to us about labyrinths. 

Over the past decade, across the country and around the world, a new facet of the New Age movement has been quietly taking hold is the phenomena of Lieberman’s single path mazelike patterns. Unlike a maze, a person can’t get lost in the labyrinth. There’s only one path in and out. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol, and those exact origins are murky. It has found a new age revival in the past decade, due mostly to a book called Walking the Sacred Path by Lauren Trece. Many people use Leverenz as tools for meditations or psychotherapy, especially as an aid for resolving personal issues. Those seeking answers to life’s questions are encouraged to work out their issues on the labron. Often walkers focus on issues as they approach the center, confront the problems at the center and resolve them on the way out. But is this any more effective than just taking a walk for such a supposedly powerful tool? There has been very little written about Labrinth therapy and medical journals. One of the few articles appeared in the Annals of American Psychotherapy Association. The piece, titled Off the Couch An Introduction to Lourens and their Therapeutic Properties, is not a study or survey, but simply a short review of the topic by psychologist Neil Harris. Harris has used the labyrinth in his practice as a, quote, vehicle for assisting mental focus, group cohesion and spiritual connection. Harris cites the work of psychiatrist Dr. Wayne London that suggests a short term increase in mental clarity in some people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and dyslexia. After following the Labrinth with their fingers, Harris admits that the researchers anecdotal and any long term effects have not been studied. The article states that the Harris himself has invented a wooden finger Labrinth to be used with clients. He calls it the therapist board, and the article concludes on a strangely commercial note. It says, quote, Discover for yourself by many throughout the world. Consider Labrinth to be sacred space, a locale where the physical and the esoteric worlds meet. I encourage therapists to begin to utilize finger Leverenz, especially the therapist board, in their practices, end quote. Harris then goes on to provide a telephone number and Web address for orders. The research that Harris cites, it turns out, was not published in any respected peer reviewed medical journal, but instead comes from Dr. Londons 1998 alternative medicine book, The Spiritual and Healing Aspects of the Classical Seven Path Labrinth. Dr. London has continued studying the benefits of Labrinth therapy, working with Judith M.. Joice, vice president of Leverenz Society. Their collaboration explores not only neurological disorders, but they say, quote, the healing effects of the Labrinth on the land, end quote. Now, how exactly the soil, rocks and trees surrounding the labyrinth are healed is left unexplained. Some promoters claim that the labyrinth has healing powers beyond the psychological. Some people claim to have been cured of serious diseases by walks and Leverenz bow. To what degree that’s attributable to placebo effects or religious fervor is hard to determine. Our trust admits that the evidence the Leverenz can heal physical diseases is shaky. The Carbondale Labrinth Project 2000 in southern Illinois recommends their Labrinth for, quote, persons with head injuries or learning disabilities who might use it to facilitate sensory integration. Many medical programs have incorporated Leverenz, the first medical facility to install Labrinth on these grounds with San Francisco’s Pacific Medical Center. Other hospitals have installed Leverenz, including St. Vincent Jennings Hospital in North Vernon, Indiana, and St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. In fact, one Labrinth resource, Labrinth Project, lists nearly 100 Labrinth at hospitals and health care facilities in 26 states and several foreign countries. Some Labrinth advocates, including educator Judy Bryan, who’s the former director of the Children’s Program at Maryland Satterley Plantation, believe that the 7th Circuit shape of the labyrinth may somehow help to enhance children’s learning capacities, including those with ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. O’Brien planned to design experiments in which elementary school children walk Leverenz and then test their reading comprehension skills before and after. Though her tests were to have begun in the year 2000, so far O’Brien has not released her results, if any. I tried to contact O’Brien about it, but she didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews. Proponents admit that the mechanism by which Labrinth supposedly heal is unknown. Our trust, the guru of the modern movement, says that, quote, We do not really know why or how the labyrinth works yet. Depending on what exactly the claim is, we do, in fact, know why Leverenz work. It’s clear the Leverenz can have a meditating and calming effect. Just about any action done with the intention of relaxing will be relaxing. In this regard, the Labyrinth is just one of many meditation devices and techniques, all of which are just as nurturing and relaxing as you make it. There’s no evidence, however, that the labyrinth is any more therapeutic or effective than, say, meditation Taiji or just taking leisurely walk. Think about it. 

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I’m pleased to have back in the studio Dr Joe Nickell, the world’s leading paranormal investigator. Using his varied background, he’s become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. He’s been called the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and the real life Scully after that character, an X Files. The skeptic, if you like TV documentaries on the Discovery Channel, Court TV, Science Channel, et cetera, you will know Joe Nichols, since he is the person who’s always given the last five minutes on one of the shows dealing with the paranormal. He gives the skeptical scientific point of view on these shows, dealing with psychics or ghosts or UFOs or Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, etc.. A veteran of literally hundreds of these TV appearances, he’s the author of over 20 books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, Secrets of the Supernatural Looking for a Miracle Entities, Psychic Sleuths, Real-Life X Files, The Mystery Chronicles and on and on. He’s on point of inquiry today for the first of a two part series on investigating ghosts. Welcome to a point of inquiry again, Joe. 

Thanks, T.J.. It’s good to be here. And good to have another chance to, I guess, make the record straight that I’m not at a bunker, but an investigator. And it’s good to be at a place that appreciates that. 

Well, let’s concentrate today on not to editorialize too much, but the pseudoscientific methods of investing the wrong approach. OK, how old it first of all, let’s just ask, how old is the search for Gus? How long have people actually been looking into this? 

You know, we really don’t actually know because I think the answer is shrouded in the mists of time. I think that humankind has believed in spirits of the dead is the most ancient time. And and that that belief is in all cultures that something happens to the dead, that there’s not a finality, but that somehow the spirit goes somewhere and that we might be able to tap that other world somehow. And so one of the oldest mentions of any such thing is in the Old Testament when the Witch of Indore conjures up the ghost of Samuel. And that’s really the beginning of spiritualism. I mean, that’s historically that’s that’s one of the early mentions of that being done, the contact with spirits of the dead. That’s not really an investigation, but it’s having a sensitive person, a medium contact that world so that that it sets up the idea that someone can interact, that people can contact ghosts, that they’re real and that they could be contact. 

Right. If I remember the Old Testament. Right. The Hebrew Bible. The account wasn’t really treated very skeptically. It was considered a bad thing to do, but it wasn’t suspected. 

That’s right. That’s exactly right. That wasn’t dismissed as not being true or if it was just bad, would be our view today would be, oh, you you think you can call up spirits? 

Well, we would question whether you really can. About a bit, if you could, we probably would be for it as opposed to being an evil thing. And, you know, the work of the devil or something. Then the first instance of something that we might think of is sort of a paranormal type investigation was a philosopher named Athina Dories. And this is probably about a.D.A and wine or somewhere along there. 

It’s not dated. We have we have the story from plenty. The younger one hundred years later. So we’re looking back at this case in and of course, in one hundred years, we can patch that. This story has gotten quite exaggerated. 

But. The idea is that that he bought a house and he tries to ignore the fact that it’s supposedly been haunted and so forth until the spirit actually shows up. 

Clanking chains and so forth and beckons to him. And he follows it out into the garden and whereupon at a certain spot, it disappears. The next day, he has the officials dig at this spot and they dig up a skeleton in chains. And so you see really Argo’s then this story proves it and so forth. Well, who knows how that story really started. It’s a folk tale. By the time we got it. And it’s very dated. We’ve you and I’ve talked to on other occasions about sort of iconography of things, how things develop. There’s interesting iconography with ghosts that each age invents ghosts in its own image or its own way. For example, in Shakespeare’s times, there were ghost crying out for revenge, for their foul murder and maybe clanking chains and that sort of thing. In the Victorian era, ghosts for these silent gliding, gray ladies that just sort of glided through the haunted mansions, calling attention to themselves. And today, ghosts, mischief makers, or they they show up in photographs in odd ways or whatever, or their spirits of deceased’s flight who contact us. And even if you look at the spiritualist kind of things, I remember I have some antique trance writings of a medium and I’ll just have to make one up. But they go something like this. Oh, my darling brother, it has been so long since we’ve communicated through the misty veils of time and then through the wonderful mediumship of Mrs.. So and so and so. And they’re just loquacious and and they go on and this rhetorical style and so forth. And then today we have John Edward and these guys that claim to talk to the dead. And I’m getting a J sounding name maybe. The dead are apparently now. They’ve lost their memory. They they stammer. 

They give hints. They give hints. They they know so little. And certainly all the rhetoric and eloquence has gone well. I’m getting onto another subject here. 

So the whole process of investigating ghosts in some form or another reaches back through the whole history of the Western cultural tradition. Let me ask you about today. How does someone today go about searching for ghosts? 

No one knows. Well, maybe. Maybe I do. But how do we count the ways that one way is the people simply show up at a haunted house and ask. Tell me your story. And that’s almost an end point. They’re collecting tales. 

They’re books full of these various ghost hunters who go and and they write these in breathless fashion. And it is said that at midnight on the, you know, a certain date, the spirit of the and they’re written in this kind of gee golly style. And they’re often based on what somebody has told them. And oftentimes even hearsay. And there’s they’re just repeating folk tales in some cases or they’re telling their personal experiences, but they’re being assessed uncritically. They’re just being written down as these are true stories of what actually not as an investigation. 

It’s just a compiling of account. 

And yet some of the people doing the collecting of stories because they’ve gone there and walked through the house and talked to the persons over what they call it, an investigation. 

But when you say to them, well, so how many cases have you solved? They don’t know what you’re talking about. What you mean solved? Well, the presumption is that if you have a case and you’re an investigator, you solve something, meaning you explain it and they’re not explaining much. They’re just collecting allegations of ghosts and maybe saying maybe by implication. Well, I have so many such tales and are similar pattern that must be proven itself. 

Another method which we saw in the Roman case at the beginning of the first millennium was what we might call the psychic method that is a sensitive person, witnesses the ghost and the ghost, then maybe tells them something or somehow the psychic is able to verify that, yes, maybe maybe the psychic says, oh, I see this figure. And then when we check the historical record, we find there is just such a figure. And they they died in just such circumstances. And that proves not only that ghosts exist, but they’re communicating to psychics and so forth. 

The problem is that there are really no real tests of any psychic note. No one’s been found to have psychic powers. And in many of these cases, the psychic could have gone and looked up some material in the library and come and revealed it. Or they could have picked up cues or there could be some other problem with the evidence. 

So that kind of experience is hardly an investigation. It’s more like a psychic revelation. But, you know, there are people out there. There are shows on TV. I’ve watched them. Where people are purporting to actually scientifically investigate a ghost scene, they have gizmos, they have scientific equipment, they go in and there’s beeping and lights and and they’re really picking up stuff. What about those kind of people, those ghost hunt? 

Well, that’s that method is often used in conjunction with psychics. Quite, quite often. They have a ghost club and they may have one or two persons who fancy that they’re psychic and they go with them. And so when the psychic says at a certain place, I feel something happening at this spot in rushes the more scientific types with their ghost meters and they get readings and the needle is wavering and so forth. Nearly every town and village now has a ghost club like this. I mean, they’re just they’ve proliferated in the last several years. 

They’re everywhere. And the problem is that. Very rarely is any scientist associated with them there. These people are not scientists. They are hobbyists. They have started with the idea that ghosts exist, that somehow they can test for ghosts by using scientific equipment, but they’re not trained to use the equipment. They really could not actually tell you what the equipment actually does measure. They use these electromagnetic detection meters. And of course, those meters are not made to detect ghosts. 

So they’re misusing real. 

They’re using scientific equipment, but they’re applying it to a purpose for which it was not intended. Much is a guy named Cleve Baxter years ago started the whole idea that plants have emotions because he hooked up lie detectors to plants and got the needles to move. And he was probably measuring something like moisture absorption or something was affecting the galvanometer. But he took it that plants have emotions. And we we started having this whole idea of talking to your plants and this whole new agey kind of thing based on pseudo science. And this is science. In fact, there are other things that cause these gizmos to go off. And that’s what they’re sold to detect. They might, for example, be responding to faulty wiring and there might be microwave radiation or or any of a number of other things that only if you could absolutely conclusively rule out every one of those, might you then suggest that they were some kind of ghost energy. But these are never ruled out because they don’t even mentioned them or have any means to rule them out. They don’t know what they’re doing. In other words. 

They’re not scientists and they shouldn’t be using scientific equipment for a purpose for which it is not intended. And the same goes with some of the other equipment they’re using. 

You know, they’re using tape recorders to get whispered messages of ghostwrite white noise and all that. And in fact, that’s what it is, is when you listen to the white noise, your imagination can run free. And you can imagine in the random patterns that you heard something. 

Well, our noggins are meaning making mechanisms. You hear something that sounds like something else you make sense out of. That’s right. We have that capacity. 

It’s what we do. It’s just like when we look at random stains that we see that looks like the face of Christ or something. So we have visual and auditory means of of doing that sort of raw shock effect. But no matter what the equipment is that they’re taking, I mean, they may be using infrared cameras. They’re getting these misti patterns, but infrared sensitive to heat. They may be only getting a little warm current or something. And of course, cameras are used big time because they’re cheap and efficient and visual. And you can grab a ghost image on the cheap. And all of this approach is made to look scientific and it’s fundamentally not science. 

You were just talking about pseudo scientific methods. What do you mean by pseudo scientific methods? It’s real scientific equipment. 

We have a name for that which looks superficially like science. But fundamentally is not science. And that’s what pseudoscience is. If it doesn’t look anything even vaguely like science, we just have a mistake going in and getting feelings. We wouldn’t call it pseudoscience. We just call it fantasy or something. But when something is has the trappings of science, when people do a lot of maybe measuring or use scientific jargon like energy fields or any of the trappings of science, but who fundamentally are not scientists not using the equipment in a scientific way. And, you know, the fundamental problem with the ghost hunters is that they’re pretty much starting with a belief in ghosts. And they’re using the equipment to sort of confirm that they’re really not starting from a completely impartial view. Are there really ghosts at all? 

You mentioned ghost photographs earlier. Seems to me that’s pretty good evidence. These people are taking physical pictures. Actual pictures of ghosts, how to explain ghost photographs. 

Can a photograph lie? Actually, a can a photographer friend of mine used to say that every every photographs, a work of fiction. But when we look at the history of photography, we go back to to the gear process. Daguerreotypes in 1839 and not a single to Garrett type. To my knowledge ever showed other than something staged for an effect or something. But it was never claimed that a daguerreotype had a ghost recorded on it. 

Ambro types followed in Ambro types had no ghosts. Then there were 10 types. Most people are familiar with tintypes in the Civil War period. 

Still still no ghost. Where were the ghosts? Why were they so shy that they didn’t show up in these early photographic processes? Well, it was not until glass plate negatives made double exposures possible. That goes decided to show up. And they showed up most profoundly in 1862 when a a Boston spirit photographer named William H Muchmore began taking spirit photographs and you would sit for the picture and spirits would appear over your shoulder around you. He fooled ultimately Abraham Lincoln’s widow with this and was very a very noted spirit photographer. Until one day someone noticed that some of his spirit extras were still living. Bostonian. And that was the end of mumblers career. But it’s interesting that if you look at even just at a superficial level, you look at ghost photos of an earlier period and they they’re transparent people. They look just like people. They’re sort of transparent looking images. That’s what we thought Ghost looked like. And that’s the way they showed up today. We don’t see much of that at all because people realize those are probably faked in some ways their double exposures or some kind of Photoshop technique. 

But what we’re finding now are orbs and ectoplasmic streaks and things. In photos. You see little little streaks of light or dots of light glowing. A big one is orbs. And these are these are big bowls, round balls of light that are in a scene. 

And whenever you see those, invariably when you ask questions, people are taking those pictures. We see that little small flash cameras, digital or or film cameras. And there are differences in the effect. But basically what’s happening is that tiny particles of dust in the air close to the lens are bouncing the flashback. And these are not ghosts at all. In some cases, droplets of moisture will do it or other things. And these strands of streaks and other effects, quite often they are flesh related as well. For example, they’re strands of ectoplasmic like streaks, as they’re called that that are simply the camera’s risk strap, bouncing the flashback strands of someone’s long hair that has wandered in front of the camera, a wandering fingertip bugs any of a number of things that can get in front of the camera and bounce the flashback. And not to say that all the effects are that simple. Some are caused by other other things, but they’re all just lump them together as glitches. And because we don’t know what caused a particular glitch. You and I weren’t there. And those circumstances may not be able to be duplicated ever again or not shouldn’t be expected. Just look at a photograph and know what caused it. It’s not a reasonable expectation. And therefore, those photographs are not proof of very much of anything. And there’s certainly we can’t use this argument from ignorance or a logical fallacy in which you say, I don’t know what caused the glitch in the photo. Therefore, it was a ghost. No, that’s that’s not logical and that’s not science. 

Look forward to continuing talking about this the next episode. Thanks, Joe, for being on point of inquiry. My pleasure. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week to hear my discussion with Daniel Dennett about his new book, Breaking the Spell Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Views expressed on point of inquiry do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Contributors include Tom Flynn, Lauren Becker, Benjamin Radford, Joe Nickled, David Capsule and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.