The Skeptic

There's been a lot of talk about the world ending or shifting dramatically in 2012, coinciding with the end of the Mayan calendar. It's easier to believe when we consider the serious problems going on in the world. In my deep meditations, I see visions that seem to bring new information -- or at least a fresh perspective. Are they manifestations of spirit or of mind? Friends are telling me about their spirit guides and angels. Are they real or are they interpreting things the way they want them to be?

Here's an entertaining talk that I think is worth the time to watch. Regardless of what you believe, it describes some interesting mechanisms at play in our minds.

Here's the transcript:

So since I was here last, in '06, we discovered that global climate change is turning out to be a pretty serious issue. So we covered that fairly extensively in Skeptic magazine. We investigate all kinds of scientific and quasi-scientific controversies. But it turns out we don't have to worry about any of thisbecause the world's going to end in 2012.

Another update: You will recall I introduced you guys to the Quadro Tracker. It's like a water dowsing device. It's just a hollow piece of plastic with an antenna that swivels around. And you walk around, and it points to things. Like if you're looking for marijuana in students' lockers, it'll point right to somebody. Oh, sorry. (Laughter) This particular one that was given to me finds golf balls,especially if you're at a golf course and you check under enough bushes. Well, under the category of "What's the harm of silly stuff like this?" this device, the ADE 651, was sold to the Iraqi government for 40,000 dollars a piece. It's just like this one, completely worthless, in which it allegedly worked by "electrostatic magnetic ion attraction," which translates to "pseudoscientific baloney" -- would be the nice word -- in which you string together a bunch of words that sound good, but it does absolutely nothing. In this case, at trespass points,allowing people to go through because your little tracker device said they were okay, actually cost lives. So there is a danger to pseudoscience, in believing in this sort of thing.

So what I want to talk about today is belief. I want to believe, and you do too. And in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things. It is the default option. We just believe. We believe all sorts of things. Belief is natural.Disbelief, skepticism, science, is not natural. It's more difficult. It's uncomfortable to not believe things. So like Fox Mulder on "X-Files," who wants to believe in UFOs? Well, we all do. And the reason for that is because we have a belief engine in our brains. Essentially, we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B. And that's called association learning.

We find patterns, we make those connections,whether it's Pavlov's dog here associating the sound of the bell with the food, and then he salivates to the sound of the bell, or whether it's a Skinnerian rat, in which he's having an associationbetween his behavior and a reward for it, and therefore he repeats the behavior. In fact, what Skinner discovered is that, if you put a pigeon in a box like this, and he has to press one of these two keys, and he tries to figure out what the pattern is,and you give him a little reward in the hopper box there. If you just randomly assign rewards such that there is no pattern, they will figure out any kind of pattern. And whatever they were doing just before they got the reward, they repeat that particular pattern. Sometimes it was even spinning around twice counterclockwise, once clockwise and peck the key twice. And that's called superstition. And that, I'm afraid, we will always have with us.

I call this process "patternicity," that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is realwhen it's not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. So let's do a thought experiment.You are a hominid three million years ago walking on the plains of Africa. Your name is Lucy, okay?And you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it just the wind? Your next decision could be the most important one of your life. Well, if you think the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator and it turns out it's just the wind, you've made an error in cognition, made a Type I error, false positive. But no harm. You just move away. You're more cautious. You're more vigilant. On the other hand, if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind, and it turns out it's a dangerous predator, you're lunch. You've just won a Darwin award. You've been taken out of the gene pool.

Now the problem here is that patternicities will occur whenever the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error. This is the only equation in the talk by the way. We have a pattern detection problem that is assessing the difference between a type one and a type two erroris highly problematic, especially in split-second, life-and-death situations. So the default position is just "believe all patterns are real." "All rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not just the wind." And so I think that we evolved ... there was a natural selection for the propensity for our belief engines, our pattern-seeking brain processes, to always find meaningful patterns and infuse them with these sort of predatory or intentional agencies that I'll come back to.

So for example, what do you see here? It's a horse head, that's right. It looks like a horse. It must be a horse. That's a pattern. And is it really a horse? Or is it more like a frog? See, our pattern detection device, which appears to be located in the anterior cingulate cortex -- it's our little detection device there -- can be easily fooled, and this is the problem. For example, what do you see here? Yes, of course. It's a cow. Once I prime the brain -- it's called cognitive priming -- once I prime the brain to see it, it pops back out again even without the pattern that I've imposed on it. And what do you see here? Some people see a dalmatian dog.Yes, there it is. And there's the prime. So when I go back without the prime, your brain already has the model so you can see it again. What do you see here? Planet Saturn. Yes, that's good. How about here? Just shout out anything you see. That's a good audience, Chris. Because there's nothing in this. Well, allegedly there's nothing.

This is an experiment done by Jennifer Whitson at U.T. Austin on corporate environments and whether feelings of uncertainty and out of controlmakes people see illusory patterns. That is, almost everybody sees the planet Saturn. People that are put in a condition of feeling out of controlare more likely to see something in this, which is allegedly patternless. In other words, the propensity to find these patterns goes up when there's a lack of control. For example, baseball players are notoriously superstitious when they're batting, but not so much when they're fielding.Because fielders are successful 90 to 95 percent of the time. The best batters fail seven out of 10 times. So their superstitions, their patternicities,are all associated with feelings of lack of controland so forth.

What do you see in this particular one here, in this field? Anybody see an object there? There actually is something here, but it's degraded. While you're thinking about that, this was an experiment done by Susan Blackmore, a psychologist in England,who showed subjects this degraded image and then ran a correlation between their scores on an ESP test, how much they believe in the paranormal, supernatural, angels and so forth.And those who scored high on the ESP scale,tended to, not only see more patterns in the degraded images, but incorrect patterns. Here is what you show subjects. The fish is degraded 20 percent, 50 percent and then the one I showed you, 70 percent.

A similar experiment was done by another British psychologist named Peter Brugger, who found significantly more meaningful patterns were perceived on the right hemisphere, via the left visual field, than the left hemisphere. So if you present subjects the images such that it's going to end up on the right hemisphere instead of the left,then they're more likely to see patterns than if you put it on the left hemisphere. Our right hemisphere appears to be where a lot of this patternicity occurs. So what we're trying to do is bore into the brain to see where all this happens.

Brugger and his colleague, Christine Mohr, gave subjects L-DOPA. L-DOPA's a drug, as you know, given for treating Parkinson's disease, which is related to a decrease in dopamine. L-DOPA increases dopamine. And increase of dopamine caused subjects to see more patterns than those that did not receive the dopamine. So dopamine appears to be the drug associated with patternicity.In fact, neuroleptic drugs that are used to eliminate psychotic behavior, things like paranoia, delusionsand hallucinations, these are patternicities. They're incorrect patterns. They're false positives. They're type one errors. And if you give them drugs that are dopamine antagonists, they go away. That is, you decrease the amount of dopamine, and their tendency to see patterns like that decreases. On the other hand, amphetamines like cocaine, are dopamine agonists. They increase the amount of dopamine. So you're more likely to feel in a euphoric state, creativity, find more patterns.

In fact, I saw Robin Williams recently talk about how he thought he was much funnier when he was doing cocaine, when he had that issue, than now. So perhaps more dopamine is related to more creativity. Dopamine, I think, changes our signal-to-noise ratio. That is, how accurate we arein finding patterns. If it's too low, you're more likely to make too many type two errors. You miss the real patterns. You don't want to be too skeptical. If you're too skeptical, you'll miss the really interesting good ideas. Just right, you're creative, and yet, you don't fall for too much baloney. Too high and maybe you see patterns everywhere.Every time somebody looks at you, you think people are staring at you. You think people are talking about you. And if you go too far on that, that's just simply labeled as madness. It's a distinction perhaps we might make between two Nobel laureates, Richard Feynman and John Nash. One sees maybe just the right number of patterns to win a Nobel Prize. The other one also, but maybe too many patterns. And we then call that schizophrenia.

So the signal-to-noise ratio then presents us with a pattern-detection problem. And of course you all know exactly what this is, right. And what pattern do you see here? Again, I'm putting your anterior cingulate cortex to the test here, causing you conflicting pattern detections. You know, of course, this is Via Uno shoes. These are sandals. Pretty sexy feet, I must say. Maybe a little Photoshopped.And of course, the ambiguous figures that seem to flip flop back and forth. It turns out what you're thinking about a lot influences what you tend to see. And you see the lamp here, I know. Because the lights on here. Of course, thanks to the environmentalist movement we're all sensitive to the plight of marine mammals. So what you see in this particular, ambiguous figure is, of course, the dolphins, right. You see a dolphin here. And there's a dolphin. And there's a dolphin. That's a dolphin tail there, guys.


If we can give you conflicting data, again, your ACC is going to be going into hyperdrive. If you look down here, it's fine. If you look up here, then you get conflicting data. And then we have to flip the image for you to see that it's a set up. The impossible crate illusion. It's easy to fool the brain in 2D. So you say, "Aw, come on Shermer, anybody can do that in a psych 101 text with an illusion like that." Well here's the late, great Jerry Andrus'"impossible crate" illusion in 3D, in which Jerry is standing inside the impossible crate. And he was kind enough to post this and give us the reveal. Of course, camera angle is everything. The photographer is over there. And this board appears to overlap with this one, and this one with that one, and so on. but even when I take it away,the illusion is so powerful be of how are brains are wired to find those certain kinds of patterns.

This is a fairly new one that throws us off because of the conflicting patterns of comparing this angle with that angle. In fact, it the exact same picture side by side. So what you're doing is comparing that angle instead of with this one, but that one.And so your brain is fooled. Yet again, your pattern detection devices are fooled.

Faces are easy to see because we have an additional evolved facial recognition software in our temporal lobes. Here's some faces on the side of a rock. I'm actually not even sure if this is -- this might be Photoshopped. But anyway, the point is still made. Now which one of these looks odd to you? In a quick reaction, which one looks odd?The one on the left. Okay. So I'll rotate it so it'll be the one on the right. And you are correct. A fairly famous illusion -- was first done with Margaret Thatcher. Now, they trade up the politicians every time. Well, why is this happening? Well, we know exactly where it happens, in the temporal lobe, right across, sort of above your ear there. In a little structure called the fusiform gyrus. And there's two types of cells that do this, that record facial features either globally, or specifically these large, rapid-firing cells, first look at the general face. So you recognize Obama immediately. And then you notice something quite a little bit odd about the eyes and the mouth. Especially when they're upside down, You're engaging that general facial recognition software there.

Now I said back in our little thought experiment,you're a hominid walking on the plains of Africa. Is it just the wind or a dangerous predator? What's the difference between those? Well, the wind is inanimate; the dangerous predator is an intentional agent. And I call this process agenticity.That is the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention and agency, often invisible beings from the top down. This is an idea that we got from a fellow TEDster here, Dan Dennett, who talked about taking the intentional stance.

So it's a type of that expanded to explain, I think, a lot of different things, souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers,government conspiracists and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention, are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. I think it's the basis of animism and polythiesm and monotheism. It's the belief that aliens are somehow more advanced than us, more moral than us, and the narrative's always are that they're coming here to save us and rescue us from on high. The intelligent designer's always portrayedas this super intelligent, moral being that comes down to design life. Even the idea that government can rescue us. That's no longer the wave of the future. But that is, I think, a type of agenticity, the projecting somebody up there, big and powerful will come rescue us.

And this is also, I think, the basis of conspiracy theories. There's somebody hiding behind there pulling the strings, whether it's the Illuminati or the Bilderbergers. But this is a pattern detection problem, isn't it. Some patterns are real and some are not. Was JFK assassinated by a conspiracy or by a lone assassin? Well, if you go there -- there's people there on any given day -- like when I went there, here -- showing me where the different shooters were. My favorite one was he was in the manhole. And he popped out at the last second, took that shot. But of course, Lincoln was assassinated by a conspiracy. So we can't just uniformly dismiss all patterns like that. Because, let's face it, some patterns are real. Some conspiracies really are true. Explains a lot, maybe.

And 9/11 has a conspiracy theory. It is a conspiracy. We did a whole issue on it. 19 members of Al Queda plotting to fly planes into buildings constitutes a conspiracy. But that's not what the "9/11 truthers" think. They think it was an inside job by the Bush administration. Well, that's a whole other lecture. But you know how we know that 9/11 was not orchestrated by the Bush administration? Because it worked.



So we are natural-born dualists. Our agenticity process comes from the fact that we can enjoy movies like these. Because we can imagine, in essence, continuing on. We know that if you stimulate the temporal lobe, you can produce a feeling of out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, which you can do by just touching an electrode to the temporal lobe there. Or you can do it by loss of consciousness, by accelerating in a centrifuge. You get a hypoxia, or a lower oxygen.And the brain then senses that there's an out-of-body experience. You can use -- which I did, went out and did -- Michael Persinger's God Helmet,that bombards your temporal lobes with electromagnetic waves. And you get a sense of out-of-body experience.

So I'm going to end here with a short video clip that sort of brings all this together. It's just a minute and a half. It ties together all this into the power of expectation and the power of belief. Go ahead and roll it.

Narrator: This is the venue they chose for their fake auditions for an advert for lip balm.

Woman: We're hoping we can use part of this on a national commercial, right. And this is test on some lip balms that we have over here. And these are our models who are going to help us, Roger and Matt. And we have our own lip balm, and we have a leading brand. Would you have any problem kissing our models to test it.

Girl: No.

Woman: You wouldn't? (Girl: No.) Woman: You'd think that was fine.

Girl: That would be fine. (Woman: Okay.)

So this is a blind test. I'm going to ask you to go ahead and put a blindfold on. Kay, now can you see anything? (Girl: No.) Pull it so you can't even see down. (Girl: Okay.)

Woman: It's completely blind now, right?

Girl: Yes. (Woman: Okay.)

Now, what I'm going to be looking for in this test is how it protects your lips, the texture, right, and maybe if you can discern any flavor or not.

Girl: Okay. (Woman: Have you ever done a kissing test before?)

Girl: No.

Woman: Take a step here. Okay, now I want you to pucker up. Pucker up big and lean in just a little bit, okay.




Okay. And, Jennifer, how did that feel?

Jennifer: Good.


Girl: Oh, my God.


Michael Shermer: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Hey. I am Michael Shermer, the director of the Skeptics Society, the publisher of Skeptic magazine. We investigate claims of the paranormal, pseudo-science, and fringe groups and cults and claims of all kinds between --science and pseudo-science and non-science and junk science, voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non-science and plain old nonsense. And unless you've been on Mars recently, you know there's a lot of that out there.

Some people call us debunkers, which is kind of a negative term. But let's face it -- there's a lot of bunk, and we are like the bunko squads of the police departments out there, flushing out. Well, we're sort of like the Ralph
Naders of bad ideas --(Laughter) -- trying to replace bad ideas with good ideas.

I'll show you an example of a bad idea. I brought this with me. This was given to us by NBC Dateline to test. It's the -- it's produced by the Quadro Corporation of West Virginia. It's called the Quadro 2000 Dowser Rod. (Laughter) This was being sold to high school administrators for 900 dollars a piece. It's a piece of plastic with a Radio Shack antenna attached to it. You could dowse for all sorts of things, but this particular one was built to dowse for marijuana in students' lockers.(Laughter)

So the way it works is, you go down the hallway and you see if it tilts toward a particular locker, and then you open the locker. So it looks something like this. I'll show you. (Laughter) No, it -- well, it has kind of a right-leaning bias. So, I'll show -- well, this is science, so we'll do a controlled experiment. It'll go this way for sure. (Laughter)

Sir, you want to empty your pockets. Please, sir?(Laughter)

So the question was, can it actually find marijuana in students' lockers? And the answer is, If you open enough of them -- yes. (Laughter) (Applause)

But in science, we have to keep track of the misses, not just the hits. And that's probably the key lesson to my short talk here, is that this is how psychics work, astrologers, and tarot card readers and so on. People remember the hits; they forget the misses. In science we have to keep the whole database, and look to see if the number of hits is somehow stands out from the total number that you would expect by chance.

In this case, we tested it. We had two opaque boxes, one with government-approved THC marijuana, and one with nothing. And it got it 50 percent of the time -- -- which is exactly what you'd expect with a coin flip model. So that's just a fun little example here of the sorts of things we do.

Skeptic is the quarterly publication. Each one has a particular theme, like this one is on the future of intelligence. Are people getting smarter or dumber? I have an opinion of this myself because the business I'm in. But, in fact, people, it turns out, are getting smarter. Three IQ points per 10 years, going up. Sort of an interesting thing.

With science, don't think of skepticism as a thing or even science as a thing. Are science and religion compatible? It's like, are science and plumbing compatible? These -- they're just two different things. Science is not a thing. It's a verb.It's a way of thinking about things. It's a way of looking for natural explanations for all phenomena.

I mean, what's more likely -- that extraterrestrial intelligences or multi-dimensional beings travel across the vast distances of interstellar space to leave a crop circle in Farmer Bob's field in Puckerbrush, Kansas to promote, our webpage? Or is it more likely that a reader of Skeptic did this with Photoshop? And in all cases we have to ask -- (Laughter) -- what's the more likely explanation? And before we say something is out of this world, we should first make sure that it's not in this world. What's more likely -- that Arnold had a little extraterrestrial help in his run for the governorship? Or that the World Weekly News makes stuff up? (Laughter)

And part of that -- the same theme is expressed nicely here in this Sidney Harris cartoon. For those of you in the back, it says here "Then a miracle occurs. I think you need to be more explicit here in step two." This single slide completely dismantles the intelligent design arguments. There's nothing more to it than that. (Applause) You can say a miracle occurs. It's just that it doesn't explain anything. It doesn't offer anything. There's nothing to test. It's the end of the conversation for intelligent design creationists.

Whereas -- and it's true, scientists sometimes throw terms out as linguistic place fillers -- dark energy or dark matter or something like that. Until we figure out what it is, we'll just call it this. It's the beginning of the causal chain for science. For intelligent design creationists, it's the end of the chain. So again, we can ask this -- what's more likely -- are UFOs alien spaceships or perceptual cognitive mistakes, or even fakes?

This is a UFO shot from my house in Altadena, California, looking down over Pasadena. And if it looks a lot like a Buick hubcap, it's because it is.You don't even need Photoshop, you don't need high-tech equipment, you don't need computers.This was shot with a throw-away Kodak Instamatic camera. You just have somebody off on the side with a hubcap ready to go. Camera's ready -- that's it. (Laughter)

So, although it's possible that most of these things are fake or illusions or so on and that some of them are real, it's more likely that all of them are fake, like the crop circles.

On a more serious note, in all of science we're looking for a balance between data and theory. In the case of Galileo, he had two problems when he turned his telescope to Saturn. First of all, there was no theory of planetary rings. And second of all, his data was grainy and fuzzy, and he couldn't quite make out what it was he was looking at. So he wrote that he had seen -- "I have observed that the furthest planet has three bodies." And this is what he ended up concluding that he saw. So without a theory of planetary rings and with only grainy data,you can't have a good theory. And it wasn't solved until 1655.

This is Christiaan Huygens's book in which he cataloged all the mistakes that people made in trying to figure out what was going on with Saturn.It wasn't till -- Huygens had two things. He had a good theory of planetary rings and how the solar system operated. And then, he had better telescopic, more fine-grain data in which he could figure out that as the Earth is going around faster --according to Kepler's Laws -- than Saturn, then we catch up with it. And we see the angles of the rings at different angles, there. And that, in fact, turns out to be true.

The problems with having a theory is that your theory may be loaded with cognitive biases. So one of the problems of explaining why people believe weird things is that we have things on a simple level. And then I'll go to more serious ones.Like, we have a tendency to see faces.

This is the face on Mars which was -- in 1976, where there was a whole movement to get NASAto photograph that area because people thoughtthis was monumental architecture made by Martians. Well, it turns out -- here's the close-up of it from 2001. If you squint, you can still see the face. And when you're squinting, what you're doing is you're turning that from fine-grain to coarse-grain. And so, you're reducing the quality of your data. And if I didn't tell you what to look for, you'd still see the face, because we're programmed by evolution to see faces.

Faces are important for us socially. And, of course, happy faces. Faces of all kinds are easy to see.(Laughter) You can see the happy face on Mars, there. If astronomers were frogs perhaps they'd see Kermit the Frog. Do you see him there? Little froggy legs. Or if geologists were elephants?

Religious iconography. (Laughter) Discovered by a Tennessee baker in 1996. He charged five bucks a head to come see the nun bun till he got a cease-and-desist from Mother Teresa's lawyer.Here's Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Watsonville, just down the street. Or is it up the street from here? Tree bark is particularly good because it's nice and grainy, branchy, black-and-white splotchy and you can get the pattern-seeking -- humans are pattern-seeking animals.

Here's the Virgin Mary on the side of a glass window in Sao Paulo. Now, here's the Virgin Mary made her appearance on a cheese sandwich --which I got to actually hold in a Las Vegas casino,of course, this being America. (Laughter) This casino paid 28,500 dollars on eBay for the cheese sandwich. (Laughter) But who does it really look like, the Virgin Mary? (Laughter) It has that sort of puckered lips, 1940s-era look.

Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida. I actually went to see this one. There was a lot of people there -- the faithful come to be in their -- wheelchairs and crutches, and so on. And we went down, investigated. Just to give you a size -- that's Dawkins, me and The Amazing Randi, next to this two, two and a half story size image. All these candles, so many thousands of candles people had lit in tribute to this. So we walked around the backside, just to see what was going on here,where it turns out wherever there's a sprinkler head and a palm tree, you get the effect. Here's the Virgin Mary on the backside, which they started to wipe off. I guess you can only have one miracle per building. (Laughter) So is it really a miracle of Mary, or is it a miracle of Marge? (Laughter)

And then I'm going to finish up with another example of this with audio -- auditory illusions.There is this film, "White Noise," with Michael Keaton about the dead talking back to us. By the way, this whole business of talking to the dead, it's not that big a deal. Anybody can do it, turns out. It's getting the dead to talk back that's the really hard part. (Laughter)

In this case, supposedly, these messages are hidden in electronic phenomena. There's a web page on which I downloaded this stuff. Here is the forward -- this is the most famous one of all of these. Here's the forward version of the very famous song. Boy, coudln't you just listen to that all day? (Laughter)

All right, here it is backwards, and see if you can hear the hidden messages that are supposedly in there. What did you get?

(Audience: Satan.)

Michael Shermer: Satan? OK, well, at least we got Satan. Now, I'll prime your auditory part of your brain to tell you what you're supposed to hear, and then hear it again. (Laughter) (Applause)

You can't miss it when I tell you what's there.(Laughter)

All right, I'm going to just end with a positive, nice, little story about -- the Skeptics is a nonprofit educational organization. We're always looking for little, good things that people do.

And in England, there's a pop singer. Very -- one of the top popular singers in England today, Katie Melua. And she wrote a beautiful song. It was in the top five in 2005, called, "Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing." It's a love story -- she's sort of the Norah Jones of the U.K. -- about how she much loves her guy, and compared to nine million bicycles, and so forth. And she has this one passage here.

♫ We are 12 billion light-years from the edge ♫

♫ That's a guess ♫

♫ No one can ever say it's true ♫

♫ But I know that I will always be with you ♫

Well, that's nice. At least she got it close. In America it would be, "We're 6,000 light years from the edge."


But my friend, Simon Singh, the particle physicist, now turned science educator, and he wrote the book "The Big Bang," and so on. He uses every chance he gets to promote good science. And so, he wrote an op-ed piece in The Guardian about Katie's song, in which he said, well, we know exactly how old, how far from the edge. You know, it's 12 -- it's 13.7 billion light years, and it's not a guess. We know within precise error bars there how close it is. And so, we can say, although not absolutely true, that it's pretty close to being true.

And, to his credit, Katie called him up after this op-ed piece came out. And said, "I'm so embarrassed. I was a member of the astronomy club, and I should have known better." And she re-cut the song. So I'll end with the new version. ♫ We are 13.7 billion light years ♫ ♫ from the edge of the observable universe ♫ ♫ That's a good estimate with well-defined error bars ♫ ♫ And with the available information ♫ ♫ I predict that I will always be with you ♫ (Applause)

How cool is that? (Applause)

Stories: Good (and Not-So-Good) Vibrations

While raising investment capital for a business I started several years ago, I was pressured to step aside and allow the investors to bring in a professional CEO.  As founder, I resisted though I knew it was common at that stage of growth and had expected the issue to come up.  A couple investors took me aside. "You're a scientist and you're too honest," was one of the arguments.  "A good CEO lies so well that he believes himself.  He doesn't even know that he's lying."   "We want someone with a big ego," was another aurguement.  "Someone who will stop at nothing to make this work."  Huh!  And they call these guys "Angel" investors.   To be fair, in retrospect, I wasn't qualified to lead a larger company at that time.  Yet, I'm still surprised at the reasoning they offered me.   Nevertheless, I managed to hang onto the CEO role, close the angel round, and go on later to close a venture round of financing.  I found that these sorts of pressures were always present.  The investors were narrowly focused on ROI.  "They aren't in it to change the world," a friend who was a seasoned CEO explained to me.  "They would donate to a charity if there was a cause they wanted to support."

I attended a weekend seminar in San Francisco for men a few years ago.  It was given by a group of 10 women who promised to "give up their game" for the purpose of showing men how to better understand women and therefore find more mutual understanding across gender lines -- a worthy goal, it seemed at the time.  At one point, the leader asked each man present what was the most important quality to them in a relationship.  When the question was posed to me, my heart-felt reply was, "Integrity."   A knowing smile appeared on the woman's face as she informed us that this was a common contention between men and women.  "Men tend to have a rigid view of integrity - they view it as black or white," she explained.  "But, for women, it's more fluid.  Women are skilled at bending the truth to fit their needs and men find this very upsetting."   I was stunned to hear such a taboo statement from a woman.  This was shortly after my divorce and I still harbored feelings of betrayal by Karen's trade of honesty for dollars in the settlement process.  "It's one of the biggest issues that comes up between men and women," she continued.  "In a male-dominated society, women have had to learn to manipulate men to get what they need -- and," she smiled with a glint in her eye, "we've become very good at it.  Women have passed down their secrets of manipulation from generation to generation for thousands of years."  Wow!  The words resonated down my spine despite their obvious generality and lack of political correctness.  I ended up having a great time with these women and returned to hang out at their Urban Retreat Center off and on for several months.

Mark Israel, MD
When I worked as a researcher at the University of California San Francisco, I struggled to get a grant that would allow me to begin my own laboratory.  I worked day and night.  It was a project that I had designed and brought with me from Stanford -- and that project relied on a neuronal cell culture method that I developed at UC Berkeley.  Even though it is public work done in the public interest, scientists get very possessive about the projects on which they work so hard -- without legal protections, scientists rely heavily on ethical conduct because "Nowhere more than academics do so many fight so hard for so little."  I discovered one day that two more senior faculty members, Mark Israel and Bill Mobley, had submitted a grant application based on my work to the NIH -- without either bothering to tell me.  I went to Bill and suggested that we all work together on the project since we shared an interest in it.  "We can't do that," he replied as if he thought I might actually agree with his reasoning.  "If you work on the project, people will think it's your work.  I need this for my laboratory."  To make a long story short, they were funded and I wasn't. I left UCSF after much protest, but short of filing a formal complaint (or lawsuit).

I wrote these (true) accounts as an opening for an article about integrity -- examples to support a premise that there's a lack of it everywhere.  I have lots of others I could tell.  I don't remember what the inspiration was -- I was probably feeling disgusted by BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Wall Street bankers' multi-million dollar bonuses following their bailout.  Yet, something didn't feel right about what I was saying and I thought about it more.

I realized that these are just stories -- the types of stories people tend to carry around with them as psychic junk.  From within a rich life, a person can find stories to support almost any point of view.  If one wants to make the point that life in the human realm lacks integrity, it's probably easy for any of us to come up with personal stories to support that view.  I could just as easily write about stories that would indicate there is an abundance of integrity in this world.  It's all there if one looks for it without cloaking it in personal drama.

It's easy to identify Self' with the stories -- holding a piece of the past as if it were a part of the present.  The stories can be about any topic or any memory - real or imagined.  What's important is that they begin to control us.  They shift our energies and become a part of our ego.  Stories like the ones above start to run when I'm feeling upset with an unjust world.   If you're not already there, telling yourself such stories will solidify your belief that the world lacks integrity.  It's much like tuning a vibrational instrument.   Your being aligns to the resonance of the story through entrainment.

I didn't intend to vilify the investors -- most could be your friend or family member.  It's simply capitalism at some refined, though unconscious, level.  It's part of our culture that is beginning to change -- perhaps in time to save ourselves, perhaps not.   I know that not all women have "fluid" integrity and some are not manipulative.   I don't think Mark or Bill are bad people -- just guys with too much ambition and too little talent who got in my way a long time ago.  Such negative energies are common in our culture and have brought us to the brink of ruin -- but, that's another story.

Prof. Cornelius Tobias
Dr. Elizabeth Kutter

There was a time when I hated Mark Israel.  Replaying my story of him brought me to a very angry and disconnected state.  But I found, too, that I could replay a story of one of many encounters with Cornelius Tobias - one of my favorite professors at Berkeley - and shift to very different pattern.  Just finding "Toby's" picture a few minutes ago brought a smile, ease and an inspired appreciation for brilliance in science as I write this article.   Then, of course, there is Betty Kutter, my first mentor who guided me on the path to scientific investigation, and there was teaching physics at Berkeley with Owen Chamberlain (Nobel Prize for the discovery of anti-matter), and even a wonderful moment with Linus Pauling.  If you walk into the room when I am thinking of times spent with either of these wonderful souls, I will be vibrating with an inner smile and an open heart.

The point I'm trying to make is that within us are numerous channels of vibrational energy that projects the personalities we identify with.  The good vibrations carry a healing energy -- not-so-good ones are toxic.  If you find yourself in a toxic situation, ask which vibrations you are tuned in to.  Shifting between stories causes a shift in my projected being.  "I" don't change, but the energies that drive me do.  Some spiritual teachers refer to these as entities or spirits that inhabit our bodies.  I don't know, but I can appreciate why they describe them in that way.  It's difficult for the mind to distinguish between story and present tense illusion ("reality").  The circuitry of the mind reacts to either.  Thus, as others have said, suffering is a choice.

This brings me to a vision I had in deep meditation a few weeks back.  I saw my vessel floating on a dynamic, flowing ocean of energy.  The ocean contained many currents -- each representing a vibrational energy.  We're rarely aware of the currents, but we learn to shift among some of them intuitively without knowing much about them.  Some currents felt familiar and personal while others seemed to embody other beings - living or dead.  They can be navigated and utilized purposefully.  A skilled navigator selects the currents that will take him in the direction he desires.