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This October, I told a thousand Viennese intellectuals about the time I was haunted.
I was speaking at TEDxVienna, an event affiliated with the TED talks. TEDxVienna, of all the TEDx events, seems especially well-attended and respected, with about 1,200 people a year, and this year the conference focused on the theme, Out There, with speakers expounding on concepts with mind-bending implications, from the gene-defying CRISPR technology, to a new way to honor the dead.
I was honored to be asked to speak about fringe science and the paranormal, with a special focus on my podcast, Oh No Ross and Carrie!, which I host with the inimitable knowledge-sponge, Ross Blocher. In Oh No, Ross and Carrie, Ross and I undergo fringe science treatments, examine paranormal claims and (most germane to my talk), join fringe groups undercover. And by undercover, I mean we tell them our real names and basically dare them to Google us. Surprisingly, very few groups do, and we are often embedded for months before anyone realizes that we are a couple of die-hard rationalists with a popular podcast.
I have often spoken about my adventures embedded in Mormonism, Raëlianism, 9/11 Trutherism, The Ordo Templi Orientis, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, and even Scientology. But this time, I was there to make an argument. The TED format is specific, and winkingly bossy: tell the audience to do something. The organizers don’t want the audience to leave simply saying, “that was interesting,” but feeling inspired to actually behave and think in new ways. I’m up to just about any challenge (ask my boyfriend about the time he dared me to call a local pie shop and list all thirty of their pies), so I had come prepared. My call was to think of Truth in a new way, and to not be afraid to ask people for evidence.
In the talk, I speak about my own experience coming to understand truth in a new way. It starts when I was about 25, and had recently moved to Los Angeles, where I lived in a small guest house behind a larger property. Through a series of events, including auditory hallucinations and a strange foreboding pressure on my chest, I came to believe the guest house was haunted. But as you’ll learn if you watch the talk, the explanation turned to be a much more worldly, and perhaps frightening, one. Yet I only discovered this alternate (and correct) explanation for my “haunting” because someone dared to challenge me.
From this premise, I explored how important it is to challenge other people’s beliefs. The “skeptic” who told me that my haunting was probably carbon monoxide poisoning may have saved my life. I go on to discuss the difference between metaphorical truths we hold dear and meaningful, and outer, objective truth.
Everything changed, though, when I got to another story. It’s about a man who approached the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in Los Angeles. The group investigates claims of the paranormal under controlled, scientific conditions, and offers a $100,000 reward to anyone who can prove that they have such a talent. (I got this wrong in the talk; I thought their reward was still $50,000, but it has been upgraded.) My co-host, Ross, is in the IIG, and the work they do is admirable. Even when I worked at the James Randi Educational Foundation, considered the gold standard of paranormal testing, I envied the IIG’s resourcefulness and dedication. This particular time, the IIG tested a man who believed he could hear voices in his head, and that these voices represented the actual thoughts of other people nearby. The IIG tested the claim (with conditions he had agreed to), and he failed.
As I told this story, I got a great shock.
“He believed he could hear voices in his head,” I said, and the audience burst into a roar of laughter. Perplexed, I coughed, “That wasn’t a laugh line!” and smiled. They laughed, uncomfortably.
As the anecdote went on, the laughter continued, even as I told about how the man almost certainly had a mental illness and needed psychiatric testing. I couldn’t believe my European attendees could be so mean-spirited, but trudged on. The talk finished with a flourish, and a huge round of applause.
As I left the stage, I received a text message from my boyfriend: “You know they were laughing because of the mentalist, right?”
Of course, the mentalist! Earlier in the day, mentalist Harry Lucas had given a delicious presentation of his powers, guessing people’s most innermost and obscure thoughts. Harry had not just guessed things like, “You are a Gemini,” which he wrote off as “a one out of twelve chance,” to an astonished crowd, but seemingly impossible-to-guess things like, “you are wondering when your garden will be the most beautiful. Well, it will be most beautiful in ten years,” which sent the recipient of the reading thunking to his seat with shock.
The mentalist. The camera operator had found him in the audience, as I told my story about the “man who heard voices in his head,” and cleverly landed on him, beaming out his rosy cheeks as he laughed and laughed at the inside joke everyone was in on but me. To be fair, there were monitors on stage for me, but I was looking out at the audience and didn’t notice.
Soon, person after person ran into the green room to say, “It was fantastic! And you know about the mentalist, right?” What had been a tense moment became a jolly one. I had been the butt of the joke, not the clairaudient man, and that was fine with me.
That night, I contacted Harry Lucas and asked him if he would like to hang out and discuss magic, paranormal claims, and skeptical activism. After all, the day before the big event, we had bonded over our mutual respect for James Randi, noted activist and magician. Harry not only took me up on my invitation, but gave me a day-long tour of Vienna, ushering me back to my hotel only when the sun went down.
Harry is A Big Deal ® in Vienna, and he should be. He is an impressive mentalist with a unique stage presence. Rather than being domineering and stern on stage, he is affable and sweet, the kind of person you’d like to hug (and I did!). Yet he still says that people are scared of him. No one offers him phone numbers after his act, he says. Mentalism, I guess, isn’t as sexy as some might think. Harry’s act is mostly seen in Europe so far, but he hopes to come to the United States in the future, so we can watch his star rise.
When I returned to the United States, I emailed Harry and asked him a few more questions about how our talks dovetailed, which he was happy to answer. In typical mystery-man fashion, he is brief and to-the-point.
Carrie: In case anyone isn’t clear, can you define what a mentalist is and how it is different from a medium, psychic, or the more general term “magician”?
Harry: A medium or psychic usually claims to have supernatural abilities, whereas a magician in the modern day sense is seen as a performer who entertains people. The term “mentalist” is quite young and is only about 150 years old. I like to use it because people like labels, and thanks to the TV series it became a common expression. I don’t have any supernatural powers. I’m very interested in people and like to connect with my audience and entertain them in an—what I hope to be—interesting way.
Carrie: I got to watch your magnificent performance live at TEDxVienna. What a show! One of the things that struck me is how you have such a warm, friendly personality, almost at odds with the typical stage mentalist (in a good way!). Was that a conscious decision? Did you ever try to play the harsher, more “mysterious” stage magician? Or have you always just stuck with your own, natural personality?
Harry: Thank you very much. It’s interesting that you mention that, because when I started many years ago I thought that in order to be taken seriously you have to act seriously. Playing that Svengali=like character isn’t me and it took so much energy that I soon stopped trying to be someone I’m not. I like to have fun and found that people appreciate that.
Carrie: When we met up for lunch a couple of days later, I said, “Hey, great hot readings!” And you said, “maybe.” I know a magician never reveals his tricks, but can you at least give us a hint about what kind of techniques, generally, are involved? Aaaaaaany hints?
Harry: I use a lot of techniques from different areas. Magic, hypnosis, psychology, games, entertainment, and various others that I won’t talk about. Some of them are hundreds of years old.
Carrie: I tried to look up some of the people you called on in the audience, to see if they had posted about going to TEDx in advance. I could only find one: Wolfgang, the gardener. And even him, I still don’t know exactly how you got the very precise reading you did. When we’re watching you on stage giving that fifteen-minute reading, how much work are we really looking at? Hours? Days?
Harry: Honestly, years. It literally took me eight years being able to present what you saw me do at TEDxVienna. There are many different ideas coming together. I love that it is complex and has so many layers. It is interactive, so anything can happen, as you saw during the performance. It is one of the highlights of my full evening theater show and I’m very proud of it.
Carrie: When we met backstage, we bonded over a mutual respect for magician and activist James Randi. Has Randi’s reputation spread to Europe? Or are you just that good at knowing your magicians?
Harry: James Randi’s name has spread over Europe, of course. I saw Randi in 1995 live in Salzburg, and only recently, at the end of November 2016, he visited Vienna to accept the Heinz Oberhummer award for outstanding scientific communication. He gave a performance as well.
Carrie: Do you ever worry that someone in the audience won’t know that “mentalists” are magicians? Do you fear that someone will think you are really claiming to have a psychic ability? Has anyone ever accused you of hiding real psychic abilities?
Harry: I consider my audience to be intelligent enough to know that I’m not here to convince anyone of anything, I’m not promoting a religion or a belief system. I’m not a guru. I am here to entertain people in an, hopefully, interesting and personal way.
Carrie: What did you think of the camera operator’s clever pan to you when I was telling my anecdote about the man who heard voices in his head?
Harry: I thought it was brilliant and I absolutely loved it. It was such a great call back for the live theatre audience. They loved it too. At the same time I felt so sorry for you because you were irritated why they were laughing. You didn’t see what was going on on the big screen behind you, did you?
Carrie: What do you think people can take from watching our two talks together: mine on looking at paranormal claims with a skeptical eye; and yours demonstrating the same abilities that psychics and mediums often use (but they claim are paranormal)?
Harry: I think it’s a very clever idea by TEDxVienna to have both of us at the same event. I love that your talk is coming from a scientific point of view, actually trying to get behind things that seem to be inexplicable and me as a performer.
Carrie: It seems like magic (and especially mentalism) is dominated by men. Is that mistaken on my part? Are there any female mentalists I should be paying attention to?
Harry: I don’t know if there are many women mentalists around performing as such, but I guess you would find woman working as tarot readers, palm readers, or astrologers.
Carrie: Where can people in the United States find your stuff? And will you be touring here at any point?
Harry: The easiest way to find me is to visit my website www.harrylucas.com. No plans to tour the United States at the moment, but if anyone is interested, I’ll be very happy to perform there too.
Carrie: Are there any other paranormal/spiritual tricks that you’ve seen someone claim are paranormal and thought, “Hey! I can do that!”?
Harry: Yes, lots of them.
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Publications and resources
Response to stories suggesting that vaping is as bad for the heart as cigarettes
Professor Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary University London, said:
“The study is reporting on a well-known short-term effect of nicotine – stiffening of arteries – that accompanies all types of stimulation. The same effect is generated by watching a thriller or a football match or sitting an exam. Drinking a cup of coffee actually produces a larger response of much longer duration. The key heart health risks of smoking are not caused by nicotine but by other chemicals in tobacco smoke that are not present in e-cigarette vapour.”
Document type: For The Record
Published: 31 August 2016
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Playing "brain-training" video games may help improve some cognitive abilities of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) by strengthening neural connections in an important part of their brains…
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Just a reminder that this picture was taken by a one-ton plutonium-powered laser-eyed robotic mobile chemistry laboratory sitting on another planet.
But I can’t leave it there, of course.
First, the self-portrait taken by the Curiosity rover on Mars is a combination of 57 separate photos taken by a camera on the end of the rover’s robot arm. You don’t see the arm because the pictures are cleverly stitched together using only angles where you can’t see it. That gives the result the feel of a vacation picture, taken by someone standing nearby.
As for the dramatic setting, Curiosity edged into the Bagnold dune field on Mars a few months ago, investigating the huge wind-swept sand dunes there. It’s been snapping pictures as well as scooping up and sampling the sand grains there as well. My friend and wonderful science writer Emily Lakdawalla has — wait for it, waaaaait for it — the scoop on that.
There’s one picture Emily posted that I want to mention. It shows sand grains taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera on the rover that is capable of close-up images of the surface (the same one used to take the self-portrait). It’s a portion of this, a bigger image:
Look at that! Those are sand grains on Mars! This is the highest-resolution image ever taken on Mars by MAHLI, done by jockeying the camera closer to the surface than had ever been attempted before; again, see Emily’s post for the whole story, which is well worth your time.
I was curious (so to speak) about those pits in the sand, so I asked Emily, and she told me those are zap pits, blasted into the surface by Curiosity’s powerful laser! It vaporizes the material, which then glows from the heat. As it glows, a detector on the rover (called ChemCam) takes a spectrum of it, which reveals the chemical composition of the material.
By eye, I wouldn’t think twice if I scooped up sand like that here on Earth. Some of the grains are dark, some more glassy-looking. It could be the stuff I washed off my feet when I went to the beach not too far from where I grew up in Virginia.
Except it’s not. It’s on another world.
When that fact sinks in, really sinks in, it gives me chills. This is what we do, we humans. We send our proxies to other planets so that we may study them up close, and find out how they work. It’s simply and truthfully one of the noblest and best things we do.
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New research suggests drinking more coffee may help to protect against multiple sclerosis, adding to a growing body of evidence that caffeine has a neuroprotective effect.
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Last year we reported on our lengthy investigation into Peter Popoff and his current business soliciting donations from members of the public via false promises of miraculous health and wealth. Part of our investigation involved complaints about the broadcasting of infomercials in which Mr Popoff advertises his ‘miracle water’, some of which are broadcast via …
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"Proton beam cancer therapy ‘effective with fewer side effects’," BBC News reports. A US study found the technique caused fewer side effects than conventional radiotherapy.
Proton beam therapy hit the headlines in 2014 due to the Ashya King case – with his parents removing him from hospital without the knowledge of staff to receive this treatment abroad. The technique is an alternative to standard radiotherapy. In this study, it was used to treat a malignant brain tumour called medulloblastoma in 59 children.
Medulloblastomas can be cured with a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. However, standard "photon" radiotherapy is associated with a risk of long-term complications for the child, including hearing problems and cognitive (brain function) impairment.
Photon beam therapy uses beams of protons (sub-atomic particles) to destroy cancerous cells. Unlike conventional radiotherapy, the beam of protons stops once it "hits" the cancerous cells. This results in much less damage to surrounding tissue.
In this study, 16% of the children had serious hearing loss five years after proton beam therapy. This compares favourably with standard radiotherapy, where about 25% have hearing loss. Cognitive impairment was also slightly less – 1.5 intelligence points (IQ) lost per year, compared with 1.9 in studies of standard radiotherapy. Overall survival was reported to be similar to standard radiotherapy. The main limitation is that this was not a randomised controlled trial directly comparing the two forms of radiotherapy – the researchers said this would be unethical.
The results seem promising and the researchers hope their study will pave the way for other studies examining safety and survival outcomes of proton beam radiotherapy in other cancers.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta, US. The study was funded by the US National Cancer Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet Oncology.
The partner of the lead author of the study is reported as having stock options in ProCare, a private medical company that provides proton beam therapy.
The UK media’s reporting of the study was accurate and, as would be expected, referenced the Ashya King case, which was one of the bigger news stories of 2014.
What kind of research was this?
This was a prospective phase II trial aiming to look at the side effects and survival outcomes of using proton radiotherapy to treat children and young people (aged 3 to 21 years) with medulloblastoma.
Medulloblastoma is a type of brain tumour that starts in the cerebellum – an area found at the base of the brain. It is the most common malignant (cancerous) brain tumour in children. Although it can be cured with a combination of surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the treatment often leads to long-term complications, such as cognitive and hearing impairment, hormonal problems and risk of other cancers. The researchers say that survivors often have a poorer quality of life than their peers, with complications being greatest for the youngest children.
Proton beam therapy (also known as proton radiotherapy) seems promising in being able to be given at a lower and more targeted dose than standard (photon) radiotherapy, and is increasingly used to minimise side effects of treatment.
A phase II trial primarily aims to see whether a possible new treatment is safe, and also start to get an idea of whether it might be effective and at what doses. This phase II trial was non-randomised and open label (unblinded) – meaning that all people were receiving the same treatment and knew what treatment they were receiving.
Ideally, if the results of phase II trials are promising, they then progress into larger phase III randomised controlled trials which examine effectiveness and safety in a larger number of people with the condition, compared to inactive placebo or other treatments usually used for the condition. However, the researchers say that in this case, randomising children to different forms of radiotherapy would be unethical.
Despite this being a non-comparative trial, the fact that it was set up prospectively to monitor the effects of this treatment means the data is more likely to be reliable than studies where researchers just look back at people’s routine medical notes to see what happened to them.
What did the research involve?
The study recruited children and young people (aged 3 to 21 years) with medulloblastoma, all of whom initially received surgery to remove the tumour. Further diagnosis and staging was then based on laboratory analysis of the tumour and imaging results. Of the 59 participants included, 39 were classified as having standard-risk disease (according to Children’s Oncology Group criteria), six with intermediate-risk disease, and 14 with high-risk disease. Their average age was 6.6 years.
Within 35 days of surgery, all participants received proton radiotherapy delivered to the brain and spinal cord. This was given at a total dose of 18-36 Gy radiobiological equivalents (GyRBE) delivered at 1.8 GyRBE per fraction followed by a boost dose (GyRBE is a measure of the amount of radiation delivered to an area of human tissue). All trial participants received the proton radiotherapy at an average (median) dose of 23.4 GyRBE and a boost dose of 54.0 GyRBE.
All participants also received chemotherapy, which could be given before, during or after radiotherapy.
The average follow-up of participants was seven years. The main (primary) outcome examined was grade 3 or 4 hearing loss at three years after radiotherapy. This level of hearing loss is serious and would mean the child would need treatment such as hearing aids in at least one ear, or cochlear implants, as well as speech-language related services.
The researchers also looked for cognitive (brain function) impairment (assessed at 1, 3, 5 and 7-8 years), and hormonal effects, which were assessed by annual measurements of height, weight and blood hormone levels. They also looked at the proportion of children surviving without their disease progressing (progression-free survival) at three years, and overall survival.
What were the basic results?
Overall, hearing in participants was significantly poorer at follow-up than it had been before treatment. Of 45 children with complete hearing assessments available at three years, 12% had grade 3-4 hearing loss. By five years, grade 3-4 hearing loss had risen to 16%. Four children experienced this hearing loss in both ears, and three in one ear (one of the latter group had improved hearing later on).
Looking at cognitive impairment, IQ decreased by an average of 1.5 points (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.9 to 2.1) per year five years after treatment. The main areas of impairment were information processing speed and verbal comprehension. Just over half of children (55%) had hormonal problems five years after treatment, with low levels of growth hormone being most common. There was no toxicity reported for the heart, lungs or gastrointestinal system.
Looking at effectiveness, 83% of children were alive and their disease had not progressed at three years, and 80% at five years. Overall, at five-year follow up, 83% of children were alive.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude: "Proton radiotherapy resulted in acceptable toxicity and had similar survival outcomes to those noted with conventional radiotherapy, suggesting that the use of the treatment may be an alternative to photon-based treatments."
This phase II study looked at the long-term side effects of using proton radiotherapy as part of the treatment of children with medulloblastoma. The treatment was used alongside standard surgical removal and chemotherapy. The current study is reported to be the longest prospective follow-up study available on this treatment for medulloblastoma.
Overall, 12% of the study’s participants had severe hearing loss three years after proton radiotherapy, and 16% at five years. This was reported by the authors to be less than the equivalent 23 Gy dose of standard (photon) radiotherapy, which was said to cause hearing loss in about a quarter (25%) of those receiving it. However, as the researchers say, these comparisons are not completely reliable because of the different doses used.
Cognitive impairment was also slightly less than has been observed with standard radiotherapy – 1.5 IQ points in this study, and 1.9 with photon radiotherapy in other studies. Again, the researchers caution over the differences in radiation doses used and population treated.
Progression-free and overall survival rates in this study were reported to be much the same as those using standard radiotherapy. There was also a lack of reported toxic effects to the heart, lungs or digestive system.
Overall, the results seem positive. The difficulty is that this is a non-comparative trial. All children received proton radiotherapy. There was no randomised comparison group with similar characteristics in terms of tumour type, stage, surgery and chemotherapy treatment who instead received standard radiotherapy, to directly compare complications and survival outcomes. Ideally, a large number of children randomised to the same dose schedule of the two forms of radiotherapy would be needed to give the best comparative information on effectiveness and safety.
However, the researchers say: "Although a randomised trial is the best way to obtain a proper comparison cohort, both clinical leaders in the UK and the US deem randomised trials of proton and photon radiotherapy in children to be both unethical and not feasible". This means that such trials are unlikely to be carried out, and this type of prospective non-comparative study is likely to be the best evidence available.
The researchers suggest their findings of an acceptable toxicity profile and similar survival outcomes of proton compared to standard radiotherapy mean, "This study could serve as a template for other outcomes-based studies in different populations to better define the role of proton radiotherapy for the treatment of other cancers."
Links To The Headlines
Proton beam cancer therapy ‘effective with fewer side effects’. BBC News, January 30 2016
Proton beam therapy has fewer harsh side effects, according to child cancer study. The Guardian, January 30 2016
So Ashya’s parents were RIGHT: Proton beam cancer therapy that forced family to go on the run to Spain because they couldn’t get it on the NHS is as good as chemotherapy – and has fewer side effects. Mail Online, January 30 2016
Proton beam therapy: Cancer treatment that ‘cured’ Ashya King is effective and has fewer side effects, study finds. The Independent, January 30 2016
Ashya King proton beam cancer therapy ’causes fewer side effects’. The Daily Telegraph, January 30 2016
Ashya King’s mother: Proton beam therapy saved my cancer child’s life. Daily Express, January 30 2016
Links To Science
Yock TI, Yeap BY, Ebb DH, et al. Long-term toxic effects of proton radiotherapy for paediatric medulloblastoma: a phase 2 single-arm study. The Lancet Oncology. Published online January 29 2016
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Right now, the meteorological event that some are calling Winter Storm Kayla is on its way across the U.S. While people may be curled up inside with a quilt by the fire, another group of creatures is finding shelter outside, under a cold, white blanket. This post about that unique below-the-snow spot, called the subnivium, originally ran in […]