Phenomena Examined, Censorship in Germany, Yet More Dilution Delusions, A Martial Arts Parallel, Remarkable – And Probably Quite Real, Officially Categorizing Nonsense, Fremer Fumes, A Sterling Example, Selling Tap Water, The “Locator” Is Back, Attenborough Reacts, and In Closing
A recent article in The New York Times pointed out the current and continuing fascination that the public has with woo-woo – and how eagerly the media snap up every attractive possibility of using this delusion to provide entertainment and sell products. Perhaps the most naïve statement in the NYT article was this:
People used to believe in magic until science began proving them wrong.
No, people still believe in magic – even more than ever – because of the hyperbole, distortion, and bias provided by the media. And this sentence in the same article also got my attention:
Table of Contents
A recent article in The New York Times pointed out the current and continuing fascination that the public has with woo-woo – and how eagerly the media snap up every attractive possibility of using this delusion to provide entertainment and sell products. Perhaps the most naïve statement in the NYT article is this:
People used to believe in magic until science began proving them wrong.
No, people still believe in magic – even more than ever – because of the hyperbole, distortion, and bias provided by the media. And this sentence in the article also got my attention:
Even reality television is getting swept up in the surreal: On Oct. 24 NBC will unveil “Phenomenon,” an “American Idol”-ish competition for illusionists and mentalists, with Uri Geller and Criss Angel as judges.
One press blurb describes “Phenomenon” as being hosted by
…mentalist Uri Geller and Mindfreak illusionist Criss Angel as they search for "the next great mentalist."
Duh! Can anyone tell me what Geller is supposed to be: a “mentalist” – that's defined as, a magician who appears to do tricks with the mind, but uses trickery – or a “psychic”? And just what does the reporter think is meant by the expression…
Just what does this reporter think is meant by the expression, “reality television”? That just means, “a little less than total fantasy,” by present standards. Since Uri Geller has stated that he doesn’t know how tricks are done, that he doesn’t use any tricks, and that he has never used tricks, what kind of authority does he bring to this show? If Ben Silverman, a newly-appointed NBC chairman of both its entertainment division and its television studio, believes that Geller is still a hot personality here in the USA, he’s not very up on faded stars. My experience has been that I now have to ask my lecture audiences to recall who the Israeli spoon-bender used to be… Criss Angel, on the other hand, is currently very familiar to TV audiences here, and has never claimed – unlike Geller – that he has any supernatural powers. In fact, he’s denied that possibility. What’s Geller doing in such company?
Says the NYT:
But the paranormal does have a pattern of springing up at times of deep pain or confusion.
Very true, and very perceptive. Encouraged and supported by the media, purveyors of woo-woo pursue the grieving, the vulnerable, the doubtful, and the uncertain members of society, and promise them magical solutions that have no basis in fact. Scam artists like Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and James Van Praagh, of course unchallenged by their sponsors and promoted by other TV colleagues, pretend to contact the dead and to give enchanted answers. Ouija boards are still trotted out to produce comforting pap, and séances are held around darkened tables to reach sources that the faithful choose to believe are just a layer away in a complicated universe that they don’t understand.
This TV glamorization of the pursuit of the impossible by the irrational got started in the 1990s with “The X-Files,” which featured two unlikely F.B.I. agents – one a skeptic, the other a believer – who investigated reports of weird happenings. The basic premise of all these shows is that the existence of supernatural, occult, and paranormal phenomena is – though sometimes slightly questionable – nonetheless very real and in place.
I’ll announce right now that should any of the contestants who enter the NBC “Phenomenon” competition claim that the skills they display are supernatural or paranormal, I will hasten to issue a complete exposé of the tricks here on SWIFT and on YouTube, so that all of Geller’s expected cooing and astonishment over a performance that he claims not to understand, will be thoroughly rained on. Geller himself cannot be expected to display any of his three standard tricks, because they’ve been thoroughly exposed as such.
It’s time that honesty and responsibility in the conjuring art comes to the fore. No performer who simply allows the audience to judge the feat for themselves, without invoking a supernatural or paranormal cause, will be exposed by me; I have always respected and supported mentalists and illusionists who work responsibly. It’s those “Gee, I just don’t know where I get this power” types, who will be blushing…
CENSORSHIP IN GERMANY
As a further example of this same media irresponsibility, reader Jens-Wolfhard Schicke tells us of a current situation in his country:
Some weeks ago, the ZDF-TV aired a program about "Miracle Healers" authored by the widely-known science journalist Joachim Bublath. The program reported critically about mass preachers who purport to be "Spirit Healers," as well as about Shamans, dangerous natural poisons in German complementary health centers, quicksilver in ayurvedic elixirs – and also that homeopathy has never been scientifically proven.
This is the usual run-for-cover technique that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in every part of the world. Rather than facing the woo-woo artists, networks and other media retreat…
YET MORE DILUTION DELUSIONS
And, still on this censorship theme, Andy Lewis of The Quackometer, at quackometer.net, refers to the extensive traffic re a threat to his group:
From the JREF forums, I note with thanks that you are monitoring the story of how the UK Society of Homeopaths (SoH) have been threatening my web site hosting company over a very critical blog post about how SoH do not appear to take enough action over the dangerous practices of their members.
Andy, we all know that nothing will stop the homeopaths from promoting their zero-content, unproven, pseudoscientific nonsense, because their livelihood depends on the public investing in it. And the useless pills will continue to pass across the counters of pharmacies all over the world, into the medicine cabinets of the gullible and deceived…
A MARTIAL ARTS PARALLEL
Reader William Buck sends us to science blogs.com, and comments:
Recently Orac took apart the findings of another acupuncture study. Those who administer acupuncture typically insinuate that a mysterious vital energy known as "chi" travels along meridians in the body, and that normal flow of chi is necessary for good health. Orac pointed out that this recent study effectively disproved the notion of meridians in traditional Chinese medicine.
Randi comments: there are several excellent links in this text, but you may want to pass by the “clickable” one shown below, suggested by “Tara” – labeled, “Evil Monkey”… I found it very disturbing. Just a suggestion…
Similar woo also permeates the martial arts. If one's chi is properly aligned, supposedly the practitioner can make their body do amazing things such as selectively exploding an opponent's internal organs when struck, or sometimes inducing a time-delayed killing sickness. My old kung fu instructor even tried to demonstrate that chi existed by having us hold our hands right up next to a mirror after a workout, supposedly when our chi is flowing maximally. He claimed you could see the visible effects of chi which manifested as a mist traveling up the mirror away from our hands. He was right: the mirror did fog over. I imagine it had more to do with the mirror being at a significantly lower temperature than our hands, which were sweaty and radiating heat, which caused condensation to appear on the mirror and radiate upward away from our hands with our body heat. Oh, well.
REMARKABLE – AND PROBABLY QUITE REAL
I received quite a few references to a video at CBS News referring to a Sacramento, California, high school freshman, 14-year-old Ben Underwood. Rather than describing the startling – but quite real – phenomenon, I’ll first let you judge for yourself by watching the video.
Reader Dave Cassafer of the Sacramento Skeptics commented to me in an e-mail:
[Ben Underwood] can not only detect objects, but can identify them as well. I believe that the use of echolocation by a human being is a super power, similar to the ability to jump over tall buildings in a single bound. Most people can hear and most people can jump, but there are natural limits to how well we can hear and how high we can jump.
Thank you, Dave, but I disagree. I must tell you that as a kid I experimented with my friends trying this echolocation effect, and to my surprise we all did rather well with it. I find no reason to doubt that Mr. Underwood can and does do this, seeing that he’s had a decade of experience and rather sufficient need to develop the ability. Of course, if we – or the Sacramento Skeptics – were to test Ben, we’d have to be sure that no prompting device could be in use, and that he really is totally – optically! – blind. Mr. Blackstone’s protocol was perhaps just a bit naïve, but ours would be somewhat tighter…
Yes, after you’ve done your tests, using the million-dollar JREF carrot to dangle before Mr. Underwood, we’d be more than willing to conduct the formal test. Just be sure that you consult us at JREF before getting involved.
Bottom line: the JREF recognizes that this ability as exhibited by Mr. Ben Underwood of Sacramento, California, can be quite genuine, but we do not designate it as a “super power” that is beyond the understanding of a careful observer.
But it’s VERY remarkable, and – I believe – just another bit of evidence proving that we’re a remarkable species! I’m touched and hugely edified by what his mother, Aquanetta Gordan, says. She insists that though Ben should have every opportunity, he should have no pity. She says:
…he's not blind. I mean, to society he's blind, but that doesn't make him handicapped. He just can't see.
Now, that’s my Mom Of The Year!
OFFICIALLY CATEGORIZING NONSENSE
Speaking of moms, our friend Linda Rosa – she’s the mother of Emily Rosa, who you can look up in the SWIFT archives – sends us this disturbing evidence of further woo-woo in the nursing profession. From the Journal of Holistic Nursing, Vol. 23, No. 2, 191-207 (2005):
"Continued Encounters: The Experience of After-Death Communication" by Luann M. Daggett, D.S.N., R.N., University of Southern Mississippi.
Note: The “After-Death Communication” notion is treated here as if it were established. There is no trace of doubt shown, and it is handled only as a clinical reality. Here on SWIFT we’ve previously complained about the lack of critical thinking in the nursing profession; this is just another example, sadly.
THE AUDIO INSANITY CONTINUES
The fur continues to fly re the current speaker-cables brouhaha. Many articles have appeared, such as the one at techdirt.com. Reader “François” comments:
BTW, lamp wire at $0.10 a foot is just fine for speakers. The speakers themselves produce around 5 to 10% distortion anyway. Randi should modify the offer and compare the $7250 speaker cables to plain lamp wire instead of the $80 scam cables.
Au contraire, François. The acceptance from Michael Fremer specifically involves the Pear cables vs. Monster cables, and we’re presently negotiating this matter – but I won’t be doing a running update, because some postings from Fremer amount to 600+ words, and we just don’t have the room for all that. The possibility of including common zip cord in the tests, has been discussed, though I’m insisting on at least 14-guage wire… Ah, but I digress. François continues:
The skeptics have addressed the pseudoscience of high end audio in a past issue of skeptic magazine. For example, the superiority of vinyl records and vacuum tube amps are favorites of true believer audiophiles. Basically, anything that is difficult to detect and leaves a lot to interpretation gets the gullible out with their wallets. That goes for just about anything including alternative medicine and religion.
There is a case to be made for having quality components, but the claims we’re dealing with here result from the “audiophools” who prefer expensive toys over actual performance, and assume superior personal sensitivity that is simply not there – all of which is of course encouraged by the vendors of the toys and supported by the small army of self-appointed “experts” who turn out reams of dreamy text extolling such nonsense, safely snuggled away in their Ivory Towers.
The JREF has put its money where its Internet mouth is.
I must thank those concerned readers who sent me informed warnings about the possibilities of fakery and the actual parameters of audio performance – not wanting me to wander out of my sphere of expertise. As I’ve said before, I know two things with considerable authority: how people can be fooled, and how they can fool themselves. The latter of those is often the more important factor. In designing double-blind testing protocols, I have always seen to it that the security, randomization, isolation, statistical limits, and information-transfer elements are carefully set up and implemented. Designing an appropriate protocol is not outside of my abilities, and I feel quite secure with this. All my life, I’ve been involved in the fine art of deception – for purposes of entertainment – and I daresay that despite my advancing age, I can still do a few dandy card tricks and make a couple of innocent objects vanish from sight, if pressed sufficiently. When that acuity degrades, it will be time to call in appropriate assistance…
Continuing the Michael Fremer discussion from SWIFT 10/12/2007, we heard further from him:
You have yet to respond. I will not participate in any so-called "scientific" experiment where "paranormal" is used to describe an event that has explanations grounded in known, explainable phenomena. Please remove "paranormal" from the groundrules and let's see if we can move forward.
I promptly answered:
Well, Michael, knowing how sensitive you are – in more than one respect, it appears – I hereby issue to you the JREF million-dollar challenge with the word “paranormal” – or any similar expression – carefully removed. Mind you, I’ve already effectively done this by designating – for my own purposes – that I consider your claim to be paranormal, but I understand how desperate you are to avoid being actually tested, so I’ll cater to this request. I note your phrase, “let’s see if we can move forward.” I assure you, I’m more than willing to move forward.
Another three paragraphs occur here, without the offensive wording. Continuing:
Mr. Fremer, for further clarity, here is the essence of what the JREF will accept as a response to our challenge: We are asking you – and/or Adam Blake – to significantly differentiate between a set of $7,250 Pear Anjou cables and a good set of Monster cables, or between a set of $43,000 Transparent Opus MM SC cables and the same Monster cables – your choice of these two possible scenarios. We will accept an ABX system test – if that is also acceptable to you. This would have to be done to a statistically significant degree, that degree to be decided.
I can see many more possible ways for you to continue balking, so let’s get along with it, Mr. Fremer.
Reader Jim Howard of Medford, Oregon, reminds us:
I'm a long time fan of yours and I thank you for pointing our so many spurious gimmicks on your site (Pear Cables, "electronic dowsing rods, Ethos Eggs, ad infinitum.) I'm reminded of something comedian George Carlin said long ago, "Nail two things that have never been nailed together before and some schmuck will buy them from you." Keep up the great work!
As matters develop, we will report, and eventually the entire exchange will be accessible here via SWIFT…
A STERLING EXAMPLE
Skeptics in the Pub (SitP) is the weekly meeting held in London to educate the public. Seeing their latest notice and recognizing how well this evening is put together, I have to wonder why we’re not seeing more such get-togethers help in major American cities. Of course, SitP has a rich source of speakers and prominent attendees to draw on, it’s true, but surely we have enough here, as well…? Just in this posting alone, we have Emma-Louise Rhodes, Prof. David Colquhoun, Dr. Brian Hughes, Prof. Chris French, Steve Parson, Dr. Ciaran O'Keeffe, and Richard Wiseman mentioned! Damn!
Just read this notice and then decide whether your group – wherever it may be – offers this sort of variety of talent and information:
Next weeks speaker is an investigator of Spiritualism and alleged psychics. Emma-Louise Rhodes' talk will examine the brief history of the Spiritualist movement and the growth of it as a mainstream faith in Britain. Phenomena inexorably linked with Spiritualism, such as materializations, apports and the spirit trumpet will be discussed, along with the functions of the Spiritualist church. The industry behind the movement will also be examined, and the “need” to believe in the unbelievable.
SELLING TAP WATER
Our own John Atkinson – the one from the Isle of Man – sends us news about yet another highly doubtful product sold by the famous Boots Pharmacies in the UK. See SWIFT 4/28/06 for a previous reference. Says John:
Somerset tap water…
Duh. Why doesn’t Boots simply sell the sprayer, and instruct the purchaser to fill it with distilled water? Or am I oversimplifying an exceedingly simple problem…?
THE “LOCATOR” IS BACK
Reader Sandy Morris notifies us of yet another burden of woo-woo for which South Africa has to answer. Back at SWIFT 8/10/07 item 4 we covered the silly “Locator” thing for which miracles were being claimed by one “Colonel” Daniel Krugel. Well, it’s back, and so is Krugel. Writes Sandy:
Krugel the Locator finds more publicity.
Randi comments: Oh no, it doesn’t. There are no “hi-tech secrets” here to be “closely guarded,” Krugel’s “remarkable successes” are all in his head, and Sandy’s reference to the News of the World as a “renowned purveyor of quality journalism” is presented by him quite mockingly, I assure you. Krugel wouldn’t know a GPS if you put it in his hand, and DNA is as much a mystery to him as it is to an amoeba. To continue:
From the South African TV program “Carte Blanche”:
Put simply – a person disappears, you find a few strands of hair left on a brush, you put those hairs into a gadget and that points out on a map where in the world that person may be.
Thank you, Sandy. My thoughts, exactly. From another article on this subject:
Allan Jamieson, director of the Forensic Institute in Edinburgh, challenged Krugel to submit his machine to controlled scientific testing. "If this is true, why not put it forward for testing?" he asks. "It's simple. Just give him a lock of hair and ask him to find which grave it comes from."
Also, once again, my exact thoughts…!
Sir David Attenborough, lately referred to at SWIFT 8/10/07 Item 6, has now reacted appropriately to the recent censoring scandal involving the program broadcast as a BBC show, but chopped and re-written to the needs of the public broadcasting organization known as “Evangelical Broadcasting” [EO]. Though the series was presented as “written and presented by David Attenborough,” all references to evolution, speciation, descent and timescales of millions of years, were removed. They were deleted by Christian creationists who are opposed to Darwin's ideas.
A DVD “The Life of Mammals” was also issued. It, too, is censored, and Episode 10 dealing with apes and humans, is simply not included. The DVD has all passages relevant to evolution cut out or rephrased to suit the creationist notions. Sir David has now called on the BBC to stop such deletion of references to evolution from his documentaries. Says he:
Instead of saying "70 million years ago, something happens," they say "a very long time ago something happens." They also omit paragraphs such as: "This is inherited from my warm-blooded ancestors…” I would much rather they kept to the letter, as far as that is possible, of what I said.
This has brought protests from Dutch scientists, led by Dr. Gerdien de Jong, an evolutionary biologist at Utrecht University. She and Dr. Hans Roskam of the University of Leiden, have fired off a petition signed by more than 300 biologists, including 50 professors, and letters of complaint, to the Director General of the BBC, the director of the BBC Natural History Unit, and Sir David. In this document, the biologists call on the BBC to insist that the programs be broadcast intact, or carry a warning notice they have been changed.
The EO is a fundamentalist Christian organization that denies all science that falsifies the literal text of the Bible. BBC documentaries have been made “compatible” with creationist views by replacing spoken English text with an adapted spoken Dutch text, or by simply cutting out whole scenes.
One would think that the BBC, as producer, copyright holder and maker of BBC documentaries, would have a responsibility towards the public to preserve the content of nature documentaries. However, the BBC has replied to this charge thus:
BBC Worldwide takes the protection of its brands and content very seriously. With thousands of hours being sold to hundreds of networks all over the world each year, BBC Worldwide allows local broadcasters to make edits but only up to a narrow margin of five minutes per hour. Their edits were less than the margin so did not involve BBC Worldwide on this occasion.
Is this really a serious comment? I ask: If the whole basis of a program is changed, bowdlerized, and censored so as to completely alter its content, and it has taken less than five minutes of the total duration of the program to do so, does that make it acceptable? Apparently, to the intellectual giants at the BBC, it does. Hey, I could change less than five words in the Bill of Rights, and change the whole history of civilization!
Have you ever heard of the “Wicked” edition of the King James version of the Bible? That was printed back in 1631 by Barker and Lucas, publishers who – we assume mistakenly – omitted an important "not" from Exodus 20:14, thus making the seventh commandment read, "Thou shalt commit adultery." Those printers were fined £300 – a lifetime's wages. Only 11 copies of this book are known to exist today, but if we could get it back in print, the BBC – well within their strange limits – just might do a special program…
Our friend Michael Feldman has asked us to make this announcement of the debut of his new group:
New York City Skeptics is proud to announce the first speaker in our public lecture series will be John Rennie of Scientific American magazine, discussing "Scientific American's Century and a Half of Skepticism." In its long history of reporting on discoveries and inventions, Scientific American has frequently been at odds with proponents of the paranormal, the technologically dubious, the weird, and the downright irrational. Editor-in-chief John Rennie will discuss some of the magazine's (and his own) brushes with figures as diverse as the Wright Brothers, Harry Houdini and the Unabomber, not to mention the creationists, cold fusion advocates and nanotechnology cultists
Reader Bob Howell saw this interesting question on a web site:
If aliens are smart enough to travel through space, why do they keep abducting the dumbest people on Earth?
And as if you didn’t have enough to giggle about in this week’s SWIFT, look in at Objective Ministries.org and see the sort of thing the coo-coos in the creationist camp could be promoting. Read all the way to the bottom, so you won’t miss any of the laughs, and remember as you’re reading, that there are real voters out there who would actually believe this fantasy, and will send in money!
But look up the word “parody” before you get carried away…
And signing off with a smile: Uri Geller was recently the subject of a “celebrity interview” in the UK. Here are two Q&As that will make you chuckle…
WHAT WAS YOUR WORST INVESTMENT?
HOW MUCH CASH HAVE YOU GOT IN YOUR WALLET?
It must be a dreadful burden, having such a saintly attitude… Uri, get a wider world-view.
A much wider one…