Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medium test

Think you can communicate with the spirits of the dead?

Well, you now have a chance to prove it.

Norwegian Rolf Erik Eikerno was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a terminal disease.  But instead of simply bemoaning his fate, Eikerno saw his illness as an opportunity.  He teamed up with the producers of the television program Folkeopplysningen ("The Public Enlightenment") to set up a puzzle for any would-be mediums.

Eikerno wrote a message on a sheet of paper, sealed the paper in an envelope, and locked the envelope in a vault.  Only the show's producers have the combination to the lock.  No one but Eikerno knows what is written on the paper, nor even whether it was written in Norwegian or English, a language in which he was fluent.

Shortly before his death, Eikerno made a public statement that if he was approached by anyone in the afterlife, he'd be happy to give them detailed information about what was in the note.  The program's staff have put out the following all-call:
Can you make contact with him?  Do you know someone who may be able to do so? 
Fill out the form further down in the article if you think you know what Rolf Erik wrote before he died. 
IMPORTANT: It is possible to answer only once.  The deadline is September 25th.
This is an experiment conducted by the TV-program "Folkeopplysningen".  Will anyone make contact?  The answer will be revealed in the ultimate episode of this years season, broadcast on Wednesday October 5th.
If you think you might know what Eikerno wrote, you can provide your answer at the link I posted above.

What's interesting about all of this is that it's been tried before.  Harry Houdini left a message with his wife, who offered ten thousand dollars to anyone who could contact Houdini's spirit and tell her what the message was.  She even held a séance every Halloween -- fittingly, the anniversary of Houdini's death -- for ten years, hoping for some contact from her husband's spirit.  Nothing happened, and no one came forward with the correct message, although several tried unsuccessfully.  After ten years, his widow withdrew the offer and stopped having séances, reasoning that ten years was an adequate time for a ghost to make arrangements to contact her.  If she hadn't heard from him by then, she figured, she wasn't going to.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, Folkeopplysningen is going about things the right way.  Here's their description of the program's goals:
Every day we are bombarded with information and claims about what is good for us, what we should be careful about, and what choices we should make to live healthy, good and safe lives. 
"Folkeopplysningen" is a TV-program that investigates such claims.  We pick up subjects where there is a discrepancy between what people think they know, what commercial providers claim, and what science is telling us.  While we in the two first seasons scrutinized different kinds of alternative treatments and health related issues, we have been given free hands this year to look at any possible subject. 
We investigate everything, from finance to dieting, motivation business, cannabis, genetically modified food, ecological food and death.
So sort of a Norwegian version of Mythbusters, without the explosions.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what turns up, although I'm perhaps to be excused if I'm doubtful anyone will come up with the right answer.  I've always said that my mind is open about an afterlife -- I have no real evidence one way or the other, although I expect that like everyone I'll get some eventually.  On the other hand, the idea that if there's an afterlife, it leaves behind remnant spirits who then can interact with humans -- I'm afraid the evidence is very much against.  If there are any well documented cases of spirit survival that can't be explained either as hoaxes or human gullibility and wishful thinking, I haven't heard about them.

I also doubt if any of the well-known (and well-paid) mediums -- people like Theresa Caputo, John Edward, Sally Morgan, and Sylvia Browne -- will volunteer to try the test out.  They tend not to like those nasty things called "scientifically controlled conditions."  I wonder why that is?

But if you disagree with me, here's your chance to prove me wrong.  As always, evidence and logic are the watchwords around here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Razor's edge

So yesterday we looked at how using magnet balls in your washing machine won't get your clothes any cleaner.  Today, in a similar vein, we look at how putting your razor blades under a pyramid won't make them any sharper.

This comes up because of a loyal reader of Skeptophilia who, after yesterday's post, sent me an email that said, "You think that's idiotic?  Wait till you see this."  And he attached a link to a site called "Pyramid Razor Sharpener: It Actually Works!  Make Your Own In 10 Minutes!"

This is the first I've seen any pyramid-power bullshit in a while -- the last one I recall was back in 2012, when someone took a photo of one of the pyramids at Chichen Itza and found that it had a mysterious beam of light shooting upwards from it.  It turned out that the whole thing was easily explainable as a common digital camera malfunction, but that didn't prevent the woo-woos from jumping around making excited little squeaking noises about how everything they'd said about pyramids was true after all, take that, you dumb ol' skeptics, etc.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

So I suppose it's unsurprising that there is still a lot of latent interest in pyramids lying around, waiting for some unsuspecting nimrod to come along and pick it up.  This at least partly explains the "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" website, wherein we find out how wonderful pyramids are for sharpening razors by having the words "Pyramid Razor Sharpener" thrown at us (no lie) fifteen times.  Here are a few of the other things we learn:
  • A pyramid is a "cone shape, but with flat sides and corners."  Which is true in approximately the same fashion as saying that a cube is "a sphere shape, but with flat sides and edges."
  • Razor blades and other sharp metal objects become dull not because use wears and blunts the edges, but because of "a crystaline build-up on the blade, static electricity and dehydration."
  • It's especially hard on razors to use them for shaving, because the "repeated rubbing of the blade on the face hairs induces an ionic crystal formation of the water molecules upon the skin."
  • Pyramids work because "alignment with the magnetic field provides for the naturally present charged particles to be 'entrapped' by the pyramid and their resulting focus at the corners."  Whatever the fuck that means.
  • It can't be a different shape than a pyramid (such as a cylinder, which is like a cube shape but with flat circles on the end) because "the particular dimensions of the pyramid cause a concentration, or focus of a negative static charge at one third of its height at an equal distance from the four corners."
  • Because we're talking about static charges, here, you shouldn't build your pyramid out of something that conducts electricity.  He suggests cardboard.  (I bet the ancient Egyptians wish they'd realized this before they busted their asses hauling around all of those gigantic rocks.)
  • If you put your dull razor under the pyramid, it will become sharp because of ions.  More specifically, the "positive ions of the crystals on the blade are effectively neutralized by the negatively charged ion concentration inside the pyramid.  The crystals are stripped of their bonds and water molecules are released.  This results in the dehydration (this is the same with mummification) of the crystals, which are destroyed.  The blade is now clean and feels sharp once again."  So q.e.d., as far as I can tell.
The funny thing about all of this, besides the fact that in order to believe any of it your science education would have had to cease in the fourth grade, is that this guy doesn't appear to be selling anything.  He doesn't wind up by saying "send me fifty bucks, and I'll tell you how!" or "for a hundred bucks, I'll send you a build-your-own-pyramid kit!" or "for the low price of only $199.99, I'll send you my motivational lecture series 'Things I've Learned While Sitting Under a Pyramid,' with a bonus set of ultra-sharp razor blades as a FREE gift!"  He seems to be openly and honestly sharing something he feels to be a legitimate and scientifically-supported life hack, despite the fact that way back in 2005 pyramid power was tested on Mythbusters and found to be (surprise!) completely bogus.

So there's something kind of endearingly earnest about this guy, even though if he thinks that water forms "ionic crystals" he really should sign up for a chemistry class.  (He did say that he'd written his "scientific explanation" of how it works in such a way as "not to sound too sciencey," and I'd say he succeeded at least as far as that goes.)  My general conclusion, however, is that you probably should stick to ordinary strops and knife sharpeners, and/or buying new razor blades when yours get dull.  Even if you built your pyramid out of scrap cardboard, you're better off recycling it and finding a different way to "neutralize your positive ions."

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dirt magnets

New on the market for people with more money than sense, we have: magnetized balls that you put in with your laundry to clean your clothes better.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Called the "Life Miracle® Magnetic Laundry System," the idea is that putting magnets in your washing machine will somehow suck dirt particles off the clothes.  Or something like that.  It's hard to tell, frankly, because most of their sales pitch sounds like this:
The concept behind the Life Miracle Laundry System is that you can achieve similar results using a chemical-free, completely renewable magnetic basis, without using non-renewable petrochemicals.  Magnetic force is one of the most powerful forces on earth. In fact, the earth itself is like a giant magnet with a north and south pole. It is an amazing source of natural energy.  Even the weak magnets on your refrigerator defy the force of gravity without batteries or being plugged into any power source.  They will stay on your refrigerator, doing work and holding up papers for decades with no external power source.  Where does all this natural power come from?  From the environment around us.  It is completely renewable and totally free.  We are simply harnessing that amazing force and focusing it in your home washing machine to affect the water.
Since the Earth has such a powerful magnetic field, it's kind of strange that our clothes get dirty in the first place.  If dirt particles were pulled away from your clothes by magnets, seems like all you'd have to do is walk around and the dirt would just fall off.  Or, in the case of really dirty clothes, give yourself a good rubdown with a bar magnet.

Be that as it may, they have a great scientific explanation of how it works:
At an atomic level, everything is affected by magnetics. All you need to do it try is for yourself and see the results with your own eyes.
So there you have it.  Atomic forces you can see with the naked eye!

Later on, though, they throw in a few caveats.  In the FAQs, in fact, we're given an answer to the question of whether the magnet balls will actually get our clothes clean and bright:
That depends on your definition of “clean” and “bright”.  When comparing the usage of the Magnetic Laundry System with laundry detergent, you need to factor in a few things...  We define clean as chemical-free, non-harmful to the wearer and non-toxic to the environment, in addition to being optically acceptable.  But only you, the user and owner of the product can determine that.
So apparently whether the magnets work to make your clothes clean depends on what you mean by "work."  

We also find out that the Magnetic Laundry System gives you best results when you also use detergent:
The Life Miracle Laundry System® is a laundry detergent alternative only. Just like when using laundry detergent, separate products used for other functions must be used separately, like spot stain treatments, and whitening bleach products.  These are separate from the Laundry System just as they are separate from detergent... [and] nothing whitens like chlorine bleach, but there are few chemicals that are more toxic for the environment and health.  Bleach is very harsh and damaging to you clothes as well.  That said, if you don’t mind the tradeoffs, you can still use diluted bleach with Life Miracle Laundry System® if you choose.
Then we're told that the magnet balls also don't kill microorganisms, either:
Laundry detergent is not used to kill microorganisms, and neither is the Laundry System, but the cleaning process itself washes away most bacteria.  However, hot water will kill most microorganisms in the water, and a little bleach will do the same (although bleach works best at high temperatures).  An extremely effective natural alternative: Numerous studies show that a straight 5 percent solution of vinegar—such as you can buy in the supermarket—kills 99% of bacteria, 82% of mold, and 80% of germs (viruses).
So you still have to use detergent, bleach, and hot water.  What exactly is it that the magnet balls do, then?

Um... well... they're all-natural!  And non-toxic!  And don't pollute the environment!  And never need to be replaced!

What more can you ask for?

Until today, I didn't realize that the placebo effect applied to doing your laundry, but apparently it does.  Who knew?

So anyway.  Here again we have a good case for why we should put more emphasis on teaching science.  Anyone who has taken an introductory high-school-level physics course would be able to explain why the only way magnets would clean your clothes is if they were covered with iron filings.  For getting anything else washed clean -- especially anything oily -- you need a surfactant.

I.e., detergent or soap.

On the other hand, if they could develop magnets that attract dog hair, I'd be all for it.  As long as the magnets were "chemical-free," of course.  Can't have any chemicals around, you know.  Those things are dangerous.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Memory offload

A couple of years ago, I had a student who had what seemed to me a weird approach to figuring things out.  When presented with a question he didn't know the answer to, his immediate response was to pull out his school-issued iPad and Google it.  Often, he didn't even give his brain a chance to wrestle with the question; if the answer wasn't immediately obvious, out came the electronics.

This became an even bigger obstacle when we were studying genetics.  Genetics is, more than anything else at the introductory-biology level, about learning a process.  There are a few important terms -- recessive, dominant, phenotype, allele, and so on -- but the point is to learn a systematic way of thinking about how genes work.

But given a problem -- a set of data that (for example) would allow you to determine whether the gene for Huntington's disease is recessive or dominant -- he would simply look it up.

"What have you learned by doing that?" I asked him, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.

"I got the right answer," he said.

"But the answer isn't the point!"  Okay, at that point my frustration was pretty clear.

I think the issue I had with this student comes from two sources.  One is the education system's unfortunate emphasis on Getting The Right Answer -- that if you have The Right Answer on your paper, it doesn't matter how you got it, or whether you really understand how to get there.  But the other is our increasing reliance on what amounts to external memory -- usually in the form of the internet.  When we don't know something, the ease and accessibility of answers online makes us default to that, rather than taking the time to search our own memories for the answer.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

That latter phenomenon was the subject of a study that was published this week in the journal Memory.  Called "Cognitive Offloading: How the Internet is Increasingly Taking Over Human Memory," the study, by cognitive psychologists Benjamin Storm, Sean Stone, and Aaron Benjamin, looked at how people approach the recall of information, and found that once someone has started relying on the internet, it becomes the go-to source, superseding one's own memory:
The results revealed that participants who previously used the Internet to gain information were significantly more likely to revert to Google for subsequent questions than those who relied on memory.  Participants also spent less time consulting their own memory before reaching for the Internet; they were not only more likely to do it again, they were likely to do it much more quickly.  Remarkably, 30% of participants who previously consulted the Internet failed to even attempt to answer a single simple question from memory.
This certainly mirrors my experience with my students.  Not all of them are as hooked to their electronics as the young man in my earlier anecdote, but it is becoming more and more common for students to bypass thinking altogether and jump straight to Google.

"Memory is changing," lead author Storm said.  "Our research shows that as we use the Internet to support and extend our memory we become more reliant on it.  Whereas before we might have tried to recall something on our own, now we don't bother.  As more information becomes available via smartphones and other devices, we become progressively more reliant on it in our daily lives."

What concerns me is something that the researchers say was outside the scope of their research; what effect this might have on our own cognitive processes.  It's one thing if the internet becomes our default, but that our memories are still there, unaltered, should the Almighty Google not be available. It's entirely another if our continual reliance on external "offloaded" memory ultimately weakens our own ability to process, store, and recall.  It's not as far-fetched as it sounds; there have been studies that suggest that mental activity can stave off or slow down dementia, so the "if you don't use it, you lose it" aphorism may work just as much for our brains as it does for our muscles.

In any case, I'm becoming more and more adamant about students putting away the electronics.  They don't question the benefits of doing calisthenics in P.E. (although they complain about it); it's equally important to do the mental calisthenics of processing and recalling without leaning on the crutch of the internet.  And from the research of Storm et al., it's sounding like the automatic jump to "let's Google it" is a habit a lot of us need to break.

Friday, August 19, 2016

I'm sure I already told you about this...

One of the most peculiar sensations in the world is déjà vu.  I typically have the auditory version -- I am completely convinced that I have had this conversation before.  Others tend to have more visual déjà vu, having a certainty that they've been in a place where they know they've never been.

I'd heard a number of explanations of the phenomenon -- that it was memory being triggered subliminally by another sense, or that it came from the fact that our sensory processing and cognitive processing were running at different speeds, so the by the time everything was integrated it created a false memory of an experience that had already occurred.  Neither of those has ever sounded all that convincing to me.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Nor, I must add, did all of the woo-woo explanations, such as the idea that déjà vu was precognition, or a visitation by a ghost, or the recollection of an experience from a previous life.

Now, cognitive neuroscientists Josephine Urquhart and Akira O'Connor of the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) have devised an experiment that gives us at least a window on what might be going on -- by creating a situation where déjà vu can be induced.

The setup is simple and elegant.  You give your test subjects a list of words to memorize, and include several that have to do with sleeping -- bed, blankets, dreams, pillow.  "Sleep" itself is not included.  After studying the list, you ask the subjects if there were any words on the list beginning with the letter "s" (there weren't).  Afterwards, you ask them if the word "sleep" was on the list.

They know it couldn't have been, because they all answered in the negative regarding there being words beginning with "s" -- but when asked the question, most of the test subjects experienced an eerie sense of déjà vu, that the word "sleep" actually was on the list -- or, perhaps, on another similar list they'd seen before, somewhere else.  Urquhart and O'Connor write:
Déjà vu is a nebulous memory experience defined by a clash between evaluations of familiarity and novelty for the same stimulus.  We sought to generate it in the laboratory by pairing a DRM recognition task, which generates erroneous familiarity for critical words, with a monitoring task by which participants realise that some of these erroneously familiar words are in fact novel...  The key omission in [prior] déjà vu generation procedures... is the provision of information allowing the participant to make an evaluation of unfamiliarity or novelty to clash with the experimentally-generated familiarity.  In these procedures, there was no objective standard by which participants could verify that the stimuli provoking familiarity had in fact not previously been encountered.
Interestingly, when the subjects were being tested, they were simultaneously being monitored by an fMRI scanner -- and when the feelings of déjà vu were the most intense, the areas in the brain involved in memory (such as the hippocampus) were not very active.  Instead, the frontal cortex -- the part of the cerebrum responsible for decision-making -- was lighting up like mad.

O'Connor and Urquhart believe that the explanation for this is that déjà vu comes from our memory's error-checking procedure.  When we are forming memories, the frontal cortex is doing a continual spot-check to make sure that what is being placed into memory is accurate.  When an error is noted, it's brought to our attention.  Most of the time, the error is something that can be resolved quickly -- with a conclusion of "okay, that's not the way it happened."  But when the memory being analyzed is close in content to something else, especially something that the conscious brain knows can't have occurred, it generates a conflict that is what results in the sensation of déjà vu.

This is still a tentative finding -- there is a great deal we don't understand about memory and sensory processing, so concluding that the phenomenon of déjà vu is explained is probably premature.  But to my thinking, this is a hell of a lot better explanation than anything else I've heard.  O'Connor and Urquhart are going to continue trying to explore the phenomenon.  As a mysterious sensation that is nearly universal to all humans, it certainly begs explaining.  But look for more studies coming down the pike.  And don't forget: you heard it here first.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Death planet approaching

A couple of days ago, I looked at the fascination we have with things that are dangerous -- tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, supernovas.  Today we are going to consider the fact that this fascination is apparently strong enough that if there are no horrible natural disasters forthcoming, people feel the need to make one up.

This comes up because of a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia wherein we find out that in South America, they have their own version of Nibiru, the fabled tenth planet (or ninth, if you agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson and leave Pluto out of the mix) that visits the inner Solar System every so often, sowing chaos and destruction.  Sort of like the way your least favorite relatives come to visit, bringing along their horribly-behaved children, resulting in a thousand-dollar bill from the plumber just to get the toy cars unstuck from the u-bend in the toilet and the wads of LaffyTaffy out of the bathroom faucet.

Turns out that the South American version of Nibiru is called "Hercolubus."  And over at a site called the Alcione Association, we find out that Hercolubus is on its way, and boy, are we in for it:
Hercolubus, a planet so called by the sages of antiquity, is a gigantic world, 5 or 6 times bigger than Jupiter. In the past it put an end to the Atlantean civilisation and it is approaching Earth again. 
The impending approach of this heavenly body to our solar system will happen soon, so that everybody will be able to see.  It will bring about great upheaval in all corners of our planet.
Well, we wouldn't want any corner to feel left out, so I suppose that's fair enough.
In its present encounter, the progressive approach of Hercolubus will bring about all type of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves, which will become more and more frequent and intense until total devastation comes about.  When Hercolubus moves near the Earth, its gigantic gravitational force will attract the molten magma towards the Earth’s surface so that earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions will increase in number and will reach unheard-of magnitudes.
What strikes me about all of this is that these people really don't understand how gravity works.  Do they think that the gravitational pull on liquids is stronger than on solids, for some reason?  It reminds me of the explanation Tom Weller gave in his phenomenal spoof of middle school science textbooks, Science Made Stupid (and if you haven't read this, go immediately to this site and read it, but don't try and drink anything while doing so or you'll be buying a new computer).   He explains the tides thusly:
We sometimes speak of the tides causing the oceans to rise or fall. Of course, this is a fallacy.  Actually, it is the land that rises and falls. 
As the Earth rotates, the moon's gravitational attraction is greatest first on one side, then the other.  Land masses, being rigid, are pulled up or down accordingly.  Oceans, being liquid, are free to flow back to their normal level.
We then find out that "Hercolubus" is going to cause the pole to shift.  We can already see it starting, because the ice caps are melting, or something.  Because clearly the ice melting at the poles will affect the magnetism of the core of the Earth, which will in turn cause the whole planet to turn turtle, kind of like a kayak capsizing.

The reality is scary-looking enough.  [image courtesy of NASA]

So how are we going to escape all of this bad stuff?  Apparently, what we all need to do is to learn how to do astral projection:
Along the course of history, different people with Awakened Consciousness have told about such cosmic phenomenon.  A very clear and current example is the little book entitled ‘Hercolubus or Red Planet’ written by V.M. Rabolu, the great Colombian researcher in esotericism. T hat book can be qualified as a ‘document about the future written with full consciousness’. 
Based on his direct and conscious experience, its author, V.M. Rabolu, teaches us in his book the systems to eliminate our psychological defects and the techniques for astral projection as the only existing formulas to face the forthcoming times.
So I guess the idea is that when "Hercolubus" comes and everything on Earth kinda goes south, we can just astral project ourselves right the hell out of here.  Although that does bring up one problem; isn't the idea of astral projection that your soul goes away somewhere, and your body gets left behind?  It'd be a little inconvenient if your soul goes for a vacation on, say, Neptune, and comes back to find that your body has been obliterated by all the molten magma being pulled around by Hercolubus's crazy strong gravity.

You can see how that would kind of be a bummer.

Anyhow, here's one more thing for all of us to worry about.  The whole Nibiru thing seems to have calmed down some, especially now that 2012 has come and gone without the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse showing up.  But Hercolubus seems to run on its own timetable, so I guess we're not out of the woods yet.  My advice is to work on "eliminating your psychological defects."  Then, even if V. M. Rabolu is wrong about Hercolubus and the Earth flipping over and everything, at least you'll be less defective, which sounds like a good thing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Chemtrail survey

One of the problems with scientists being understood by laypeople is that they don't speak the same language.

I'm not just talking about technical vocabulary, here, the ability to throw around words like photophosphorylation and anisotropy and eigenstate.  I'm talking about how they each use fairly simple words -- words like theory and hypothesis and proof.

As an example, consider the kerfuffle over the activation of the Large Hadron Collider, instrumental in the search for (and ultimately discovery of) the Higgs boson.  There was concern, mostly on the part of non-scientists, that the energy released by the collisions within the LHC could cause some untoward effects.  Since one of the metaphors used to describe what was happening therein was "recreating the conditions that were present at the Big Bang" (a statement that in any case is incorrect by several orders of magnitude), people wondered if the activation of the machine might generate mini black holes -- or possibly a new universe, which would expand and tear our universe apart from the inside.

So looking for reassurance, the scientists were contacted, and asked if this was possible.  And that's when the trouble started.

Scientists, for the most part, are extremely careful to differentiate between the words "possible" and "likely."  So they said, sure, it's possible.  Given that we haven't ever achieved collision energies this high, lots of things are possible, including some we probably haven't foreseen.  You can't rule out an eventuality that depends on data we don't have yet.

Well, at that point, the media was off to the races.  Headlines saying "Scientists Admit It's Possible the LHC Will Destroy the Universe!" began to appear.  Only after the hue-and-cry began did the scientists say, "Now, wait just one minute.  We didn't say it was likely.  In fact, it's extraordinarily unlikely."  But by that time no one was listening, because most people were too busy wailing about how we were all gonna die and it was the physicists' fault.

I'm happy to say, though, that not only did we not die when the LHC was activated, the scientists are beginning to learn how to talk to the rest of us.  Witness, for example, the rather annoyed-sounding paper that appeared in Environmental Research Letters a few days ago, entitled, "Quantifying Expert Consensus Against the Existence of a Secret, Large-Scale Atmospheric Spraying Program," by Christine Shearer, Mick West, Ken Caldeira, and Steven J. Davis.  If you're thinking, "wait, this can't be about what it sounds like," well, yes, it is:
Nearly 17% of people in an international survey said they believed the existence of a secret large-scale atmospheric program (SLAP) to be true or partly true.  SLAP is commonly referred to as 'chemtrails' or 'covert geoengineering', and has led to a number of websites purported to show evidence of widespread chemical spraying linked to negative impacts on human health and the environment.  To address these claims, we surveyed two groups of experts—atmospheric chemists with expertize in condensation trails and geochemists working on atmospheric deposition of dust and pollution—to scientifically evaluate for the first time the claims of SLAP theorists.  Results show that 76 of the 77 scientists (98.7%) that took part in this study said they had not encountered evidence of a SLAP, and that the data cited as evidence could be explained through other factors, including well-understood physics and chemistry associated with aircraft contrails and atmospheric aerosols.  Our goal is not to sway those already convinced that there is a secret, large-scale spraying program—who often reject counter-evidence as further proof of their theories—but rather to establish a source of objective science that can inform public discourse.
So this brings up a couple of points.  First, these folks are going about this the right way.  None of this pussyfooting around about how "we can't prove it" or "without evidence, we can't say it's impossible;" Shearer et al. are saying, "No, you loons, there are no such things as 'chemtrails.'"

Second, didn't you just love the comment about how conspiracy theorists "often reject counter-evidence as further proof of their theories?"  That, I believe, is what is referred to in scientific circles as a "mic drop moment."

But third, I have to wonder who the 77th atmospheric scientist was, the one who had found evidence of chemtrails.  I'd like to talk to that guy, wouldn't you?

Be that as it may, I think the scientists are figuring out that you can't just assume that everyone gets the way evidence and proof (and disproof) are used in science.  They're becoming bolder about saying things like, "Evolution is a fact," "Anthropogenic climate change is happening," and "Homeopathy is pseudoscientific bullshit."  Unfortunate though it may be, using the more cautious diction that is necessary in a scientific paper just doesn't work when communicating scientific findings to the masses.

Anyhow, that paper cheered me up immensely.  Given that common-sense considerations -- such as the fact that jet contrails would be a really crappy toxin delivery device -- don't seem to dissuade the True Believers, it's time for the scientists to come together and say, "Um... NO."  Not, as they pointed out, that it will convince the True Believers -- but because it will let anyone still on the fence know that there is no discussion about this amongst people who aren't certifiable wackos.