Skeptical Thinking


In the last post, we discovered – to our significant bafflement – that the magical CieAura has ShooTag‘s Melissa Rogers as its Chief Science Officer. Today we’re going to look at some of CieAura’s claims, and indeed, dwell a little on the ‘science’ that this wonderful gadget is supposed to use.

I will make it super clear here – since the ShooTag people seemed to have a lot of trouble with this concept – that the science part of this whole swindle is my major concern. If the claim of this device was that its working mechanism is magic, then I’d not be interested in trying to approach such a claim via a rational process. That’s a zero sum game. But the appointment of a ‘Science Officer’ clearly nails CieAura’s pretensions to the mast. In my book, spectacular scientific claims must offer spectacular and unassailable proof.

Before we go on, I have a confession to make – I realised this morning that I’ve actually examined CieAura in the past. In the comments on this post, Brian J visits the Cow to tell us about his experience with them. He found his way here because CieAura was even mentioned in the same context as ShooTag! But I completely forgot about it. In my defense, there are just so many of these damn scams that one tends to be very much like another and I truly forget which I’ve looked at. At that time (June 2011), CieAura was probably just getting its market penetration. Brian J’s story is an interesting one, and if you have the time, I recommend you read the discussion between him and myself. It’s very enlightening in regard to what we’ll go on to examine in this post, and the next.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. First I’ll give you a little breakdown of the product. CieAura manifests as not one, but eight different modalities. The website contends that it will help you with pain, sleep, fatigue, allergies, libido and weight loss, protect you from EMF and enhance your sporting prowess. CieAura comes in the form of holographic ‘chips’ that you attach to your skin with skin-coloured tape. This is what they look like:

The image is of a pyramid, in case you can’t see it. Pay special attention to that, because we’ll revisit the concept later.

Now I will point out here that it is frighteningly cheap to make a hologram of the kind you see here. A hologram is nothing more than an array of tiny little refraction scratches in the surface of thin plastic. There is nothing special about this process. Billions of these holograms are manufactured every year and they are made as simply as you might print a document on your home computer.

A ten second search gave me hundreds of options for getting sheets of holograms printed (mainly in China) for as little as 0.01 cents per piece (a piece usually consisting of one sheet of ten or twenty), and I bet you could even do better with a trade order. A single sheet of 10 CieAura holographic stickers will cost you 35 dollars. This is an absolutely astonishing manufacturing-to-sales profit ratio of 3500%.

The CieAura chips are supposed to be efficacious for 2-3 days. So, in the main, one packet of CieAura stickers is going to last you no more than a few weeks, and in all probability, customers are encouraged to buy multiple packs. You can see quite clearly that if these things are actually being purchased, this is a goldmine.(i) It’s fairly difficult to get a good metric for the purchase success of CieAura. The web turns up many testimonials, but that’s vague endorsement. We can probably assume moderate sales success, which, due to the profit ratio, is no doubt a significant revenue. But that’s only a small facet of the money machine that is CieAura, as we will see in a bit.

In any case, today we’re looking at the science claims of CieAura, so we’ll leave the business aspects for the moment and have a little gander at how this wonderful product is supposed to work.

I’m not going to quote the text from the CieAura ‘Science’ page in its entirety, because, to be honest, it’s just plain gobbledegook (similar to what we saw in the ShooTag ‘science’ claims). You can go read it if you want, it’s here. To me it seems like this:

“CieAura does magical and amazing things that will make your life better. We here at CieAura don’t really understand the way the world works, and we don’t think you do either. Ancient peoples used magic and so we thought that if we took magic, and added pretendy science words to it, you might believe it’s not magic. We’d convince you it works by saying something like this: imagine something irrelevant in the real world. Now imagine your body is like that thing. CieAura magically makes that irrelevant thing relevant to your body, and fixes whatever problem you want by making magic equivalence. Oh, and by the way, Energy.”

Elsewhere on the CieAura site, we get references to lasers, quantum fields and more energy. Proper science is referred to as ‘orthodox science’, but is used to attempt to leverage some CieAura credibility despite the condescension. Perhaps the most peculiar thing of all is this:

NOTE: It is often misconstrued that frequencies and vibrations are the basis for the CieAura Chip design. To clarify: It has been determined that frequencies and/or vibrations are not the rudimentary cause of brain and body communication. Research has shown that frequencies and vibrations are an energy force that can be measured, and when absorbed by the body, appear to create certain effects. We have found that when the frequencies and vibrations are removed from the body, there remains, what is referred to as, intrinsic energies, which operate as the body’s natural communication force. These “intrinsic energies” are not measurable in the same manner as frequencies and vibrations are measurable, and because of this, we use the body’s natural forces to antidotally determine the existence of these forces. For these reasons, we consider it factually incorrect to describe the results of our technology to be driven by frequencies or vibrations.

Any further discussion on how the chips work would reveal proprietary production technologies.

So after all Melissa Rogers’ previous huffing and puffing about ‘frequencies’ in her attempted scientific explanations of ShooTag, it appears she’s gone cold on that particular concept. Or maybe ShooTag works on frequencies and CieAura works on not-frequencies. From the above explanation, it’s completely impossible to figure out how it does work, and this paragraph sounds to me like this:

“Magic, frequencies, magic, magic, bullshit, waffle, waffle, magic, bullshit and oh, we can’t tell you how it really works because secrets.”

Another berserk thing that we discover from the CieAura pages, is that the holographic magic of CieAura is happily riding along on the coattails of another dubious area of medical pseudoscience – acupuncture.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is an energy medicine. Acupuncturists dating back 3000 years also employed these energetic principles of positive and negative or yin and yang with the neutral center energy of mind being the way of the Tao… The manufacturer of CieAura Transparent Holographic Chips has discovered a way to adhesively charge intrinsic energies into holograms for the purpose of influencing the human cycle. Our Chips influence key points to create the desired effect. The natural meridians in our body get out of balance and cause blockages in the natural energy flow between the vital organs, cells and tissues of the body. The body works to connect these energy flows; however, without help, there is rarely if ever a balance in our body that keeps energy, concentration, stamina, and plus and minus (Yin and Yang) at the optimum level.

So what we have here, in essence, is a highly questionable modality of ancient folk medical treatment being influenced by an unspecified and quite unknown mechanism of physical science to return an outcome that the manufacturers – in their own words – explicitly do not guarantee (we’ll examine this situation in the next instalment). Would you spend 35 bucks on that? I’d rather go to a movie and have a choc top.

In short, there is no science here. Once again we find Melissa Rogers throwing around all kinds of sciencey sounding stuff in order to give CieAura a patina of credibility, but wholly failing to make any sense whatsoever, and certainly not putting forward any rational explanation as to why CieAura is anything but a flimsy piece of plastic film with a picture etched onto it. It is significant to note here that these kinds of claims and techniques were specifically responsible for the comprehensive banning of Power Balance bands here in Australia. The manufacturers of Power Balance, which also “used holographic technology” to “resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”, admitted that the claims they made for their product were baseless, and they were compelled cease trading in Australia and to refund the purchase price of a Power Balance band to all customers who requested it.

Finally, today, we’ll take a look at a YouTube clip:

I don’t know the bona fides of the chap doing the demonstration here, but this is the hoary old ‘balance’ test, which, despite the guy’s claims of it ‘not being a trick’, is exactly that, and has been shown to be such so many times that it’s amazing that anyone still falls for it.(ii) Here’s exactly how it’s done, and how the purveyors of the million dollar Power Balance scam were toppled:

In the next post we’ll go on to take a look at CieAura’s business practices, and some amusing legal stuff. Join me, won’t you?

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Footnotes:

  1. Of course, the assertion that some aspect of the holograms ‘wear out’ is abject nonsense, and in this respect we see a departure from the mechanism of ShooTag, which, although it was still nonsense, at least retains faint plausibility in the notion of the product efficacy being limited over time by wear and tear. Perplexingly, elsewhere on the CieAura site we find this: “Formulas cannot be changed unless bent or cut. Data on a hologram lasts over 50 years, so shelf life of CieAura products is almost unlimited.” So what is it, exactly, that limits the efficacy of CieAura holograms to two days? []
  2. It has been charitably said that the people who carry out these demonstrations may not be consciously affecting the outcome, but I have trouble believing that. Do the experiment yourself, and see if you can do it without knowing you’re doing it… []

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So anyway, the other day I just happened to think that it had been far too long a time since I visited our old friends at ShooTag, so I took a little stroll over to their site. Yeah, pretty much same ol’ same ol’. The name (and by implication, the endorsement) of Texas State University has mysteriously reappeared on their front page again, after they were explicitly directed to take it off by said university (on account of… well, no delicate way to put this: they were lying about Texus U’s involvement in the supposed scientific tests of their product), but it hardly surprises me. That’s what dishonest people do. The site itself is looking spectacularly crappy – dead links, crummy nav, appalling layout. And it looks like it’s been comprehensively shat upon by the Bad Advertising Bird. Evidently not much effort or money going into that particular enterprise these days.

I did notice that they are sporting some ‘Camouflage’ style ShooTags now, ostensibly for dogs and people who are bothered by mosquitoes when hunting.

“NEW: STAY INVISIBLE WHEN HUNTING WITH THESE NEW CAMO TAGS!” they scream in caps, and given the outrageousness of previous ShooTag claims, one might be forgiven for thinking they’re now offering some kind of Harry Potteresque invisibility mechanism for their gadgets. But I suppose we should give them the benefit of the doubt and take it that they mean ‘invisible to mosquitoes’. I’m a charitable kind of person when it comes to metaphor.

The thing that caught my attention, though, was a small, nondescript link that appears twice on the home page:

3000 years of science! OK, so that’s gonna be good. Clicking the link takes us to a very different experience indeed. CieAura®’s site is way more moneyed-up than ShooTag’s sorry presence. Images of good-looking happy smiling people by the seaside tell me that:

“CieAura has introduced a series of holographic chips that communicate with the body to help promote proper balance in several areas of interest to all human beings: deeper rest, energy, allergies, libido, relief from discomfort and weight management.”

Cool. Holographic chips that communicate with the body! Like Star Trek! Or something. Well, you can’t just make something like that up, right? You’d need some science. Hey, they have a video! Let’s have a look at that to see if there’s any enlightenment to be had. I’ll wait while you do that. You only need to watch the first forty or fifty seconds. I promise that anyone who’s been a Cow reader for a while is going to get a really big surprise around the 31 second mark. Trust me, it’s worth it.

A personage called Paul Rogers (hmm… familiar sounding surname…) tells us that CieAura has ‘introduced a line of holographic chips to the world’. Well, he’s certainly peddling a line, that’s for sure. These miraculous chips have been developed for CieAura by their chief scientist – it’s about here that I choked on my Manhattan – Melissa Rogers. Oh, how many pennies just dropped then? Paul Rogers, the link from ShooTag and the suspicious lack of product activity from them over the last few years…

Let’s have a little recap of the scientific credentials of Melissa Rogers, Chief Scientist of CieAura®, who has been designing these chips for the last sixteen years (moonlighting from her deep thought on ShooTag, one supposes):

Ms Rogers first tangled with the Cow back in 2009, where she called me ‘ignorant’ for not being ‘disaplined [sic] in physics and quantum physics’ and attempted – but failed comprehensively – to impress me with her scientific knowledge of radio frequencies, fractals and crystals (some things I actually do happen to know quite a lot about). At around that time she left a comment on another blog in reference to ‘Einstein’s famous equation, E=M¾’, completely duffing probably the most well-known physics formula in the world, and one that even third graders get right. Over the next months, she went on to assert that mobile phones use radio frequencies (they don’t), that she understands the work of physicist Geoffrey West at the Santa Fe Institute (she doesn’t) and that she knows how to properly conduct a science experiment (not a clue).

Ms Rogers also has clear links to Professor William Nelson (aka Desiré Dubounet) who, in the late 1980s was indicted by the FDA on numerous charges of fraud, all related to medical ‘energy’ devices. Rather than face these charges Nelson illegally left the US in 1996 to hide in Hungary, where he/she currently resides, and still manufactures and sells his machines. I can’t say if Mr and Ms Rogers have any current affiliations with Nelson/Dubounet, but Melissa Rogers certainly did in 2009 – well within her supposed sixteen years’ development period for CieAura – when she spoke at Nelson’s annual QX Conference (a ‘medical energy’ seminar) in Budapest.

We can also find a bio for Melissa Rogers on the site:

Melissa uses small signal technology(i) and uniquely combines it with advanced science to develop products that help balance the body’s intrinsic energies. After successfully launching over 12 products into the retail mass market, she joined the CieAura team in July of 2012. Some of her products have won prestigious awards and have been University tested with high efficacy evaluations. Her products are designed to assist the body in balancing the energy in the body, thus helping reduce stress in the body. Melissa believes; reducing stress in the body will help reduce stress in everyday life.

“Some of her products have won prestigious awards and have been University tested with high efficacy evaluations.”

I’d love to know what those products are – ShooTag is quite obviously not one of them, since it’s never been university tested. There’s no mention of what Ms Rogers’ ‘prestigious awards’ actually were, which is kind of peculiar. Most people are very eager to show you their Oscar. I’m also quite curious about the extent of Ms Rogers’ ‘advanced science’, as she’s not demonstrated it anywhere that I’ve ever seen.

That CieAura has appointed this person as their ‘Chief Science Officer’(ii) speaks volumes about the kind of product that they’re selling, and we’ll examine that product in the next post.

I just know you’ll stay tuned.

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Footnotes:

  1. Ms Rogers has quite obviously picked up the ‘small signal technology’ buzzwords from her association with Rainer Fink who she implicates in the ShooTag experiments. []
  2. The implication it carries – that there are a bunch of other ‘science officers’ – is frightening, given the qualifications of their chief. []

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Did you like that headline, dear Cowmrades? Did it make you chuckle just a little? I must say, it amused me for a brief second or two. It has very little to do with anything much except for the fact that it concerns wine, and is a ridiculous joke – much like our subject of discussion this morning: The Premium Wine Card.

Now, if you’re of similar mindset to myself, the first thing you think when you hear someone talking about a ‘Premium Wine Card’ is that it’s going to be one of those reward schemes for buying wine, amiright? You know the kind of thing – you buy a dozen bottles and because you’re a Premium Wine Card holder, you get a 13th bottle free (or something along those lines). Well, I’m not a big fan of loyalty schemes as you know, but hey, if that kind of thing floats your boat, go for it. It’s scamming by any other name, but at least it’s relatively harmless.

But oh no, the Premium Wine Card is not one of those things. The Premium Wine Card – let’s call it the PWC, since we’ll be referring to it a lot – is to wine as ShooTag is to pest control. In other words, it’s a useless gew-gaw promising miraculous results that defy any known scientific principles and is aimed solely at relieving credulous people of their cash.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: you take your PWC, and as you pour the wine, you hold the card touching the bottom of the glass. Leave the glass for thirty seconds (what that’s all about is, like everything else in this brainless enterprise, never explained) and that’s it, sports fans. The job is now done. Your five dollar bottle of plonk is now the spitting duplicate of a Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin.

Not that the PWC vendors would ever claim something quite so concrete, of course. Oh, no. In the kind of evasive double-speak we’ve come to expect from these kinds of swindlers, the purveyors of the PWC claim that:

•It is “A World first in technology to treat young wine and improve its taste instantly”

“…the Premium Wine Card has a positive effect on the tannins in the wine, causing them to quickly soften as if the wine had been further aged for a number of years.”

“…wine treated with the card has a fruitier aroma and a smoother, richer flavour with the mellower, softer finish that is typical of a premium cellared wine.”

Amazing! And exactly how is this miracle achieved? Well, I’ll tell you, Faithful Acowlytes: with frequencies. Golly those frequencies are versatile. With ShooTag we learnt how they repelled ticks and fleas, and now they’ve been rounded up to make wine taste better. Incroyable!

To be specific (well, as specific as meaningless mumbo jumbo can possibly be):

“The Premium Wine Card contains an embedded set of precise frequencies that produce a long-lasting natural resonance. The resonance can be transferred to wine through the wine glass.”

I’d like you to read that sentence once more through, because that is the sum total of explanatory information for the PWC’s method of action under the Technology heading on the PWC site’s How It Works page. I kid you not. Unlike the ShooTaggers, these people don’t even make the barest half-assed attempt at science. It’s all encapsulated solely in the words ‘frequencies’ and ‘resonance’. There’s not even a hint of what kind of mechanism in the card – if any – might be responsible for generating these frequencies or causing this resonance. I have my suspicions that there is exactly no mechanism at all, but I’m certainly not paying 75 bucks to find out.

The comprehensive (and laugh a minute) FAQ on the site has this clanger:

Q: Does It Make Every Wine Taste Better?
A: For most people yes!

Whoa there bartender! Most people? Did I get the aroma of subjectivity there for a brief second? Do you mean that this might not work for everyone…??? But it’s science, right, with all those frequencies & all? What if I’m not most people? What if I’m a smart person who doesn’t fall for nonsensical horse shit?

Oh I see! There’s a money back guarantee! I’m almost tempted to outlay my $75 in the name of science, but I have a sneaking suspicion that getting my money back might not be quite as straightforward as the website promise makes it appear.

Of course, the PWC site is replete with that obligatory signature of snake-oil vendors, the Testimonial. I’m inclined to believe that, unlike most of these scams, the testimonials are actually real. Mostly because they are, by and large, really terrible endorsements.

I didn’t think it would work but after rubbing the Premium Wine Card on my bottle, the beer tasted better. ~Paul Macaione, Cornubia

Crikey Paul. Don’t go overboard.

Oh, and I’m sure you noticed that Paul is talking about beer, here. Yes, quite astonishingly, the PWC does work on beer too. And on coffee and tea. And on fruit juice. Despite the fact that the only supposed mechanism of efficacy given anywhere on the website has to do with ‘softening tannins’ (and as far as I’m aware, there is not, and nor has there ever been, a market for aged fruit juice).

Choice magazine does have an online review of the Premium Wine Card. I’m afraid their assessment is rather more namby pamby than it should be, stopping well short of calling out the whole thing as a scam. They conclude, rather lamely in my opinion, that:

…if it can’t change the chemical properties of wine, it just might affect your brain chemistry – the placebo effect is a very powerful thing!

Which, aside from verging on being an actual endorsement of the fraud in question, perpetuates the erroneous notion of what the Placebo Effect actually is.

As we’ve seen previously on The Cow, there’s a veritable wagonload of woo in the wine-tasting business. We’ve had wine quality affected by magnets, by astrology, and even by the direction you swirl your wine in the glass. Needless to say, when this highly subjective process is subjected to any kind of rigorous testing, the miraculous effects fade away.

But in light of all this, my loyal Cowpokes, and mindful of the old if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em aphorism, I have good news for you! I’m about to save you 75 bucks with the introduction of… the Premium Cow Card.

What’s more, dear friends, you don’t even need to send off for the card. You can have it working within minutes! Simply print out a copy of the PCC on your printer and take it with you wherever you go. When used correctly, it will make your wine/beer/absinthe/steak/french-fries/haggis taste betterer than better. As you know, all TCA products are powered by our unique FeelyGood™ technology, and come with a ONE HUNDRED PERCENT MONEYBACK GUARANTEE.

“I can’t believe it! I applied the Premium Cow Card to my brain and now it’s operating at a full 20%! Seaworld has just given me an employment offer!!!” ~Hattie Bucksfizz, Marulan South.

Just prior to Halloween, my friend Hugh wrote to me with a very spooky tale. It seems that a neighbour of his – let’s call her Margaret – had recently been on a ‘ghost’ tour of a popular historical location in Sydney, and had been involved in a quite unsettling experience. You will recall that I am not averse to the occasional ghost tour, so I was very interested to hear his account of Margaret’s adventure.

The particular locale in question runs several kinds of tours: straight historical tours, ‘ghostly encounter’ tours, ghostly sleepovers, and ‘extreme’ ghost tours. I believe that Margaret and her daughter attended one of the ‘ghostly encounter’ tours – an adult walking tour taken by lantern light and featuring moderately ‘spooky’ content.

Margaret told Hugh that the significantly creepy part of her tour occurred in a dormitory in one of the buildings that was on the evening’s itinerary. This is how Hugh described the incident in an email:

Last Saturday she and her daughter went on a night ghost tour of [a heritage site].(i)

She said the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.

The touring party entered one of the old dormitories, and a number of them posed on the beds, feigning illness. Margaret felt this was disrespectful, so would not photograph her daughter doing this.

One of the women from the company group took a photo of a male colleague as he posed on a bed. She had put her bag down on the bed, and the man was sitting next to it.

She took several shots. Three, I think. But when she came to look at the photos, two of the shots were as expected — of the man sitting on the bed next to the bag. But in the third, there was a major change.

Instead of the man, there was a baby. The baby was looking directly at the camera, with a piercingly sad gaze. One of its hands was placed over the bag beside it.

The woman was visibly upset, and over the rest of the tour kept flicking through the photos on the camera, and saying she didn’t want this to be happening to her.

Both Margaret and her daughter saw the photo with the baby, and said it was not one of those ‘blur that could be anything’ ghost photos. The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.

There was no baby on the tour.(ii)

Of course, this story intrigues me greatly. The first thing we all want to know is: where is the photograph? Right? Unfortunately, it seems that at this point in time, the photograph exists nowhere outside of the woman’s phone. Margaret did not ask for a copy, and it certainly hasn’t made it to the Facebook site of the tour provider (where people have no hesitation in posting up all manner of exceptionally unconvincing ‘ghost’ photos). There was a suggestion from Margaret that the woman didn’t want to ‘spread the story around’.

You can probably tell that I am deeply skeptical that this event unfolded in quite the way it seems. Now I want to make it very clear that I’m casting no aspersions on either my friend Hugh, nor on Margaret. I am sure Margaret is telling the story exactly as she remembers it, and I’m very grateful to both of them for allowing me to reproduce it here.

As I will try to show, however, I think that the least likely explanation for this whole affair is that someone snapped a picture of a ghost baby.

There are a number of things of which we should be be mindful as we begin to examine this event:

•Margaret did not know anyone on this tour, aside from her daughter.(iii)

•The photographs in question were taken on a phone and not a discrete camera (although Hugh’s story only specifies ‘camera’, this was one of the details I asked him to re-check with Margaret – it was a definitely a phone camera. This is a critical fact to know in considering certain aspects of the incident, as we shall see).(iv)

•The atmosphere on these ghost tours is highly charged, which I can verify from personal experience. People are skittish and jumpy.(v)

•Margaret was predisposed to feel ‘a certain way’ about the location. She said to Hugh that “the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.”(vi)

•It is common that these kinds of tours are conducted by lantern light and there is often no other kind of light source. Margaret confirmed that this was the case on this tour.(vii)

•We like to think that other people won’t take advantage of our trust in them, but they can, and they will (for all kinds of reasons).

•People don’t, as a rule, remember past events particularly accurately, especially if they’ve witnessed them under emotionally enhanced circumstances.(viii)

With those thoughts under consideration, I believe that – looking at it from the point of view of an impartial observer – there are six different possible explanations for this incident:

1: A woman on a nighttime ‘ghost’ tour of an old building actually snapped a realistic and unmistakeable picture of a ghostly apparition in the form of a sad baby, and was, completely understandably, deeply distressed.

2: The woman snapped a picture of something that a number of people, including Margaret and her daughter, mistook to be a ghostly baby.

3: The woman showed people a photograph she’d faked to appear as if it was that of a ghostly baby (and also fabricated a convincing emotional performance in an effort to reinforce its reality).

4. The woman herself was the victim of a hoax in which someone, somehow, planted an unsettling photograph on her phone without her knowledge.

5. The story of the ghost photograph incident was completely made up by Margaret, and related by Hugh as it was told.

6. The whole story was made up by Hugh.

Each of these scenarios has its own problematic consequence:

1: Asks us to accept the reality of a supernatural event, and furthermore, an event that numerous people failed to witness in actuality, but only saw as a result of some unexplained photographic mechanism. Explains the whole tale as told, but requires we question the nature of reality as science and rational endeavour reveals it.

2: Asks us to accept that numerous people were mistaken in exactly the same way by a photograph that Margaret describes as being as clearly of a baby as those of a normal human adult taken just before it. Explains the events, but requires we question the credibility and/or memory of a number of witnesses.

3: Asks us to accept that the woman concerned staged an elaborate prank. Explains everything, but requires a mechanism of execution for the deceit, and a motive.

4: Asks us to accept that someone else staged an elaborate prank, and was prepared to cause distress to carry it off. Explains the woman’s anguish and preserves her credibility at the expense of additional complication to the methods and motives for executing a hoax.

5. Asks us to consider that nothing Margaret told Hugh is true. Explains everything, but requires we question the credibility of the person relating the tale.

6. Asks us to consider that Hugh concocted everything, possibly including Margaret.

I don’t know Margaret at all, so I must maintain in my mind the possibility that explanation #5 is valid, since this and #6 are the ones that require the least number of assumptions. I do, however, know Hugh very well, and Hugh says he knows Margaret well, so I will accept that there is no real credible motive for Margaret to just spin a fantasy for Hugh, and then maintain that fantasy when queried on it. So I will discard #5 since there’s no compelling evidence to reinforce it (it is significant to note that, according to Hugh, Margaret herself is open to suggestions as to what she witnessed).

#6 is somewhat more problematic. Hugh knows me, and the other friends to which he told this tale, quite well, and it is within the realm of plausibility that he would play a complex trick on us. At this time, I have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case. I have only had the discussion about this affair via email, and Hugh’s emails seem consistent and don’t hint at any deception. I believe he is being truthful about this event, but rational process requires I must allow this as feasible. Everything considered, though, it seems unlikely, so I will disregard #6 also (I’m sure that both Margaret and Hugh find these last two options amusing, but I hope you can see that they must necessarily be part of the equation in order to cover all conceivable contingencies).

Of those explanations remaining, the one I’m most inclined to think is the most plausible at face value is #2: that people were mistaken about exactly what was in the photograph. And yet, Margaret seems adamant about what she saw: “The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.” So, if she’s right about that, then we are faced with the two main remaining possibilities: that the photo is a genuine photo of a ghost, or that it was faked.(ix) The easiest of those to examine from a procedural point of view is the feasibility of fakery; how hard would it be to concoct this kind of photo and insert it into a photostream on a phone without being detected? The answer is that it is not at all difficult, as I quickly discovered. It turns out that there are numerous phone apps that will allow the very quick creation of an archetypical ‘ghost’ photograph and save it to your photo library.

On Halloween, Violet Towne and I were booked on walking tour of Melbourne General Cemetery, so I decided to carry out an experiment: would I be able to take photos on my phone, and, unbeknownst to strangers on the tour, insert it into my photo library as if I’d taken it with my camera phone? The answer is that it was trivially easy. Here are two consecutive shots from my phone on that night. The second one contains the ghost:

Although there were about twenty people on the tour, I was easily able to make it appear that I was casually photographing the graves while preparing and inserting a ‘ghost’ into my image. If I’d been so inclined (and of adequate acting ability) I could have, without any doubt, convinced people that this image appeared without my knowledge.(x)

I emailed the image to Hugh, who remarked that it looked to him like a classic double exposure – which it does, indeed. He showed it to Margaret who concurred and said “Well that is pretty good and spooky but no, it looked like a normal photo of a baby – as though it had actually been sitting on the bed when the photo was taken.” I could have made my ‘ghost’ less transparent and more solid – at the expense of ‘ghostliness’ – but as Hugh quite correctly pointed out, that would have made it easier to detect as an added image, and more like a collage. In this instance, he said, lighting conditions and interaction with other things in the scene would become much more critical. All completely valid observations. But as a result of the reactions from Hugh & Margaret, I realised something quite crucial at this point: for my photo to have had maximal effect, I’d have needed to have made the ghost photo obvious as quickly as possible after I’d taken the shot. In this era of extreme pixel-pushing, almost everyone knows that you can easily stick a ghostly apparition into an image with Photoshop, so waiting a couple of days would certainly open up the possibility of that having been done. In addition to that, it’s much more effective to show people such a shot while they are primed to be expecting ghosts, and while their critical faculties are impaired by the frisson of the circumstances and are acted upon by group pressure.

The thing is, we also don’t really know how convincing the photograph was, since we don’t have it. Margaret says that the shot of the baby looked as real as the photos of the man on the bed, but how good were those shots, actually? They were taken by lantern light – that’s going to be pretty dim, even with each person on the tour carrying a lantern.(xi) Under what conditions did Margaret and her daughter view the images? How big was the phone screen, for instance? How long did she get to examine it? Who was in control of the phone – was she able to look for as long as she liked, or did the woman whisk it away from her ‘to show someone else’? Maybe the excitement of the incident clouded her perception and she remembered the baby to be more real-looking than it was? It’s hard to be sure of any of these things.

Even so, let’s go on and accept that the ghost photograph was 100% convincingly that of a baby sitting on the bed with its hand draped over the woman’s bag.(xii) Since no-one saw a baby there in reality, the photograph is plainly not a record of an actual real event that occurred at that time.

One thing we must consider, therefore, is the possibility that what was shown on the phone was a normal photograph of a real living baby on the bed taken at some other time in similar lighting conditions and then inserted into the phone photo library directly after the events in the dormitory had transpired. I checked to see whether I could do such a thing and found that it’s very easy to accomplish in a variety of ways. It just needs some basic iPhone knowledge and a little simple preparation. Anyone could do it.

Now, let’s contrast that scenario with the other main alternative: that a digital phone camera captured, via mechanisms unfathomed and with a high degree of realism, a phenomenon that no-one present witnessed with their eyes; that is, the supernatural apparition of a baby with “a piercingly sad gaze”. I cannot categorically discount this, of course, not having been there, nor having seen the photograph. I will say, though, that it occurs to me that this image, if genuine, would be one of the most persuasive ghost photographs ever taken. To put it into context, if the photo was as realistic as Margaret remembers, and the events happened as she recalls, and there is no fakery going on, then there exists no other photographic record, at this level of verisimilitude, of any ghostly phenomenon ever. I’ve seen hundreds of photographs purporting to be of ghosts, and I’ve never seen a single one that was ‘realistic’, (except for photographs that have been offered up well after the supposed event, and are therefore distant from the memory and verification of any witnesses). What we would have here, then, is a photograph of a ghost witnessed by numerous people almost immediately after it was taken. This would be, to my knowledge, unprecedented. It is, in any event, extremely rare. Had I been the photographer, I’d have wanted as much endorsement of it as I could possibly get. I’d have immediately posted it to my Facebook page for a start, or if I wasn’t a Facebook user, I’d have messaged it to several trusted friends for verification and time stamp. The idea that our mystery woman was just too freaked out by it to make it more public than the people who were in her immediate vicinity just screams ‘setup’ to me.

I hope you will agree that of these two possibilities, the faking of the photograph provides a conceivable, and not particularly elaborate, explanation for the ghost baby image.

Of course we don’t have any evidence at all as to why someone would seek to carry out such a deception, but when faced with the other option, coming up with a motive for a hoax seems the lesser of two leaps of plausibility: perhaps the hypothesised hoaxers had no other intention than to freak people out; maybe they thought it would be funny for the people concerned, but it worked too well and they chickened out when it came to revealing the gag; it’s even possible that they just wanted to see if they could pull off a stunt of this kind for aesthetic reasons. Maybe it was a rehearsal for a much more complex scheme to be used for publicity purposes by the tour company.(xiii) It could even be a bit of all of the above. These can only be speculations on my part, of course, but in my opinion even these speculations are more credible than accepting the alternative, which requires that we accept several supernatural mechanisms that have no basis in science or rationality. The main reason that Margaret herself is hesitant to accept the hoax hypothesis, is that she considers the distressed reaction of the woman who took the photograph to be far too convincing to be a performance. You can probably work out that if I can entertain the concept that Hugh, a person I know well, might be pulling my leg, I certainly have no trouble being skeptical of the motives of a woman who we know only as ‘the woman’ and whose photograph – the key piece of evidence in the whole adventure – remains, at this writing, unavailable for anyone to examine.(xiv)

This has been yet another long post, but I hope you will agree with me that these kinds of stories are worth exploring in detail. Unlike many of the scammers and swindlers who we encounter on the Cow’s rambles, people who have been involved in events that seem genuinely puzzling and mysterious deserve, I think, consideration and respectful attention. I have, myself, had one or two of those experiences. At the same time, it is important to keep a very clear idea of how the landscape of such things is shaped. It is one thing to propose a mystery. It is an entirely different thing to propose that the solution to that mystery involves even greater mysteries, especially when there are far less mysterious solutions at hand.

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Footnotes:

  1. Names and locations have been anonymised by arrangement with Hugh []
  2. Keep in mind that these are verbatim quotes of Hugh’s recounting of Margaret’s story – possibly not Margaret’s actual words. I note this only to make it clear that in stories such as this that are handed on verbally, all kinds of errors and assumptions can creep in as the story is handed on. I re-checked a number of details that were unclear to me from High’s account, but it is possible that there are still small differences between what Hugh recorded and what Margaret related. No-one is to blame here – that’s just how eye-witness stories go. []
  3. So she could have no idea of the bona fides of any other person there. For all she knew, everyone could have been in on a prank, except her and her daughter. []
  4. It’s crucial to the ‘hoax’ hypothesis. Inserting a bogus photograph onto a standalone digital camera, whilst not impossible, presents some technical difficulties. Pulling off the same stunt on a phone camera is ridiculously easy. []
  5. You will recall that, in my account of the Aradale tour which Violet Towne and myself took, I mentioned that other participants were certain they were experiencing supernatural phenomenon when there were far more likely explanations. And that tour was heavily tilted towards history, rather than the supernatural, so a more ‘ghost’ oriented tour is of course even more likely to imbue the proceedings with nervousness. []
  6. This, of course, is a highly subjective and emotional assessment. Margaret presumably knew at least something about the place she was visiting, and even if she didn’t, her reaction is unsurprising; as a rule, ghost tours are not conducted in cheery, jolly, well-lit places. It kinda doesn’t work. []
  7. So photographs are going to be always in dim light, or by camera flash. []
  8. This is not merely an assertion on my part. There is substantial science in place that demonstrates that human memory is pliable and unreliable. In addition, skilled practitioners can exploit those factors very effectively. []
  9. For the purposes of this investigation, whether or not a hoax was perpetrated by Margaret or by a third party who ‘framed’ Margaret, is incidental. []
  10. I achieved this trick with Ghost Capture, an iPhone app that is designed specifically to make ‘ghost’ photos. It comes with a library of images that you can insert as your ghost, but also enables you to use any image you like as your phantom. Right now there are numerous images in circulation on the internet that purport to be genuine ghost photographs, but which a casual search reveals to be the work of this app, or one of another dozen or so just like it. It’s pertinent to understand that a user with even a little skill could contrive to use this app on a ghost tour such as the one in question to create in a matter of seconds a reasonable ‘double exposure’ style ghostly apparition. []
  11. I checked with Hugh about the lighting – Margaret made it clear that there was no light other than the twenty or so lanterns carried by tour members. []
  12. And there’s another item we should consider. The bag was prominently identified in the story, both before the photograph was mentioned and then as a focal point in the ghost baby photo which showed, according to Margaret, “One of its hands… placed over the bag beside it”. The bag could quite conceivably be serving the purpose of magician’s misdirection prop, making you focus on something other than the thing you should be focussing on. It might, for instance, be distracting you from the fact that the photograph was taken on a different occasion, perhaps. Your eye is drawn to the bag on the bed, but not to the fact that it is a completely different bed, say. Because the bag is detailed so clearly in the story, it even makes me wonder whether the woman made a purposeful point of drawing attention to it. This kind of ploy is used in stage magic tricks all the time, in order to contrive a phantom continuity of events. []
  13. As there has been no mention of it on the tour site, one must assume that it has not so far been used with this intention. []
  14. I’m prepared to wager that if anyone attempts to pursue the photograph, it will never manifest. It will be either have been erased from the phone by the owner ‘because it was too disturbing’, or it will have mysteriously erased itself – vanished into the ether via the same supernatural mechanism by which it arrived. []

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Acowlytes! Let me introduce you to Food Babe. If you haven’t heard of her up until now, this is going to be a very special post for you. Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, is to put it quite simply, a reality-challenged, uneducated loon. Her basic schtick is to take everyday food items (anything that’s not chia or sprouts, principally) and concoct some kind of conspiracy around how they’re going to kill you.

She also gives travel tips:

The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.

That’s right folks, airlines are trying to kill you with nitrogen. Up to 50% of it in the air they FORCE you to breathe when you fly. The fuckers!

Aside from being completely scientifically addled, that paragraph is, of course, nothing but pure unadulterated bollocks. She pulled all that information straight out of her ass – pretty much like she does with all her ‘facts’. The problem is, a HUGE number of people read this hogwash and take it as gospel.

You can read more Food Babe here, if you are a sucker for punishment. I guarantee it will make you feel more nauseous than an all-you-can-eat buffet at Outback Steakhouse.

NOTE: Not only has the main link to this article been redacted from the Food Babe site, someone is systematically moving all the cached links as well. The Google caches have been scrubbed, as has the Wayback Machine cache. In the grand tradition of historical revisionism everywhere, Food Babe is trying to make it seem like she isn’t an A-Grade idiot. Fortunately you can read the entire text of the redacted page at Skeptical Analysis.

The person who has just been appointed to the head of Australia’s once(i) world-admired science organisation, the CSIRO,(ii) believes in magic.

Yes dear Cowpokes, Dr Larry Marshall, a man whose scientific credentials barely cast little more than a dim glow from within the deep shadow of his business escapades, and whose tumbling grammatical trainwreck of a biography uses expressions like ‘leverage’ and ‘serial entrepreneur’, wants to create water dowsing machines.

Larry says he would…

…like to see the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it,” he said. “When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’

You know what, Larry? When you see that – as a scientist – you should actually ask yourself why no real scientists believe, for even a nano-second, that dowsing works.

You have no idea how they do it? My suggestion is that you look up the ideomotor effect and watch this video. Several times, if you don’t get it on the first run through.

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Footnotes:

  1. I say ‘once’ because, like everything else in this country lately, it seems that the idiotic buffoons who aspire to be some kind of ‘government’ here, are hell bent on making it the laughingstock of the educated world. []
  2. You know WiFi? The CSIRO invented that. Yeah, WIFI! []

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