SWIFT March 14, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Purple Plates, Another Withdrawal, Don’t Miss This, A Request, Airborne News, An Assignment, Another Pet Psychic, No Wonder!, Very True, Moving Forward – Maybe, PBS Offends, Lilieci Case Solved, A Loser Is the Winner, That Pot Head Man, Unlikely Penguins, Adelaide Woo-Woo, Homeopathy Alert, and In Closing…

padre pio

Reader Dean Malandris:

Those of us trying to maintain our life raft of sanity in an ocean of stupidity have probably developed a sense of being "comfortably numb," as Pink Floyd once said. If rationality is represented by low-lying land mass, and woo-woo is represented by the ocean, then the more I look around, the more I'm convinced that we're suffering Intellectual Global Warming.

I originally thought this was a web site that might have described, in intricate detail, the contents of Nikola Tesla's kitchen cabinets, or side board, but oh no: www.tesla-energy.com

The only sensible thing I could make out was on the "About Plates" page, where it says:

Table of Contents
  1. Purple Plates

  2. Another Withdrawal

  3. Don’t Miss This

  4. A Request

  5. Airborne News

  6. An Assignment

  7. Another Pet Psychic

  8. No Wonder!

  9. Very True

  10. Moving Forward – Maybe

  11. PBS Offends

  12. Lilieci Case Solved

  13. A Loser Is the Winner

  14. That Pot Head Man

  15. Unlikely Penguins

  16. Adelaide Woo-Woo

  17. Homeopathy Alert

  18. In Closing…



PURPLE PLATES

padre pio

Reader Dean Malandris:

Those of us trying to maintain our life raft of sanity in an ocean of stupidity have probably developed a sense of being "comfortably numb," as Pink Floyd once said. If rationality is represented by low-lying land mass, and woo-woo is represented by the ocean, then the more I look around, the more I'm convinced that we're suffering Intellectual Global Warming.

I originally thought this was a web site that might have described, in intricate detail, the contents of Nikola Tesla's kitchen cabinets, or side board, but oh no: www.tesla-energy.com

The only sensible thing I could make out was on the "About Plates" page, where it says:

Plates have been in use for more than 30 years (1971) and have still the same effects as on the first day.

That, I can believe…




ANOTHER WITHDRAWAL*

Last week I mentioned at randi.org/joom/content/view/172/27/#i10 that a major test of homeopathy in Greece has met the expected fate, being abandoned by the homeopathy community. Now, this 1,000-word notice has arrived from Gábor Hraskó, Executive President of the Hungarian Skeptic Society:

It seems that we are halted in the preparations for bringing the homeopathy test to Hungary. The board of the Hungarian Homeopathic Medical Association made a decision last week not to support the test.

In advance I organized a small, but enthusiastic group of scientists within the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and around to support the test. I also made preliminary checks on what kind of permissions we would need from the authorities. I visited the board of homeopaths together with a doctor, who is relatively well-known in Hungary. The meeting was very kind, but I experienced the very same attitude I used to meet with when speaking to advocates of any alternative therapies. They are real doctors so that it was quite frightening that they had no clue about pharmaceutical tests at all. They made the usual claims that their duty was healing and not testing. Also they said it was very much unfair not to treat half of the patients for sake of science.

Randi comments: Yes, this “treat half the patients” problem is a very legitimate complaint. However, I believe that there are other possible modalities for conducting such a test, and avoiding any compromise of proper care.

They also have another problem that they did not dare to reveal very much, but I think it is one of the major reasons for their withdrawal. They practice the so-called “classical homeopathy” (similarly to Mr. Vithoulkas), as opposed to “clinical homeopathy” in this practice, where they perform the traditional time-consuming screening of the patients and try to find the correct remedy using multiple visits. Their repertoire consist of more than 1000 remedies (I have a small collection of them including Moon light 100C, Berlin wall 40C, Oxigen 200C etc.) and only some 300 of them are currently registered with the authorities in Hungary. It means that their prescription method is – well – at least in the grey zone if not totally illegal.

To be honest, I assume this must be the case in most of the countries. In spite of the simplified registering rules applied for homeopathic remedies – they are registered as real drugs, not dietary supplements – but no toxicity and efficacy tests are required, and most of them are not registered. They import them on an ad hoc basis or ask their patients to get the remedies directly from the manufacturer.

They know Vithoulkas and in a sense they trust him. He was recognized in Hungary some years before, based on the proposal of the association, but as they say, his reputation is very much declining now. The only real question they asked was why Vithoulkas had not been able to find an alternative hosting institution in Greece? This is a good question indeed and I could not answer it. Partly because of this, they tended to believe that we have some “secret agenda.”

Their actual list on which they based their decision was as follows. My comments are in brackets:

• The ethical background of the experiment is not clear, either from the experimenter or the patient sides. (GH: they have no clue about the ethical norms of normal drug testing);

• No institutional background exists in Hungary that would guarantee the fairness and effectiveness of the test. (GH: they do not trust anyone);

• There is no local remedy manufacturer. (GH: this would be a real challenge, though as they had said they would use some “good quality” manufacturers in their practice);

• We believe that a test like this should involve much more patients. (GH: so that it is easier not to make tests at all).

This is of course mostly nonsense, but I cannot do anything about that. I know Mr. Randi said for years that homeopaths will never finally agree on such a test, and I think it is time to close this project.

During the last years I learned a lot about CAM [Complementary/Alternative Medicine]; I read their literature, investigated their trials and clinical tests and followed the skeptical interpretations. By now I know that these types of tests are not really adequate for testing CAM in general. Practitioners of homeopathy, or other therapies like acupuncture, can refer to real positive clinical tests that are sometimes even published in prestigious journals. It becomes more and more clear that looking for “evidence” – positive clinical trials – for a treatment, is important, but not sufficient to prove that a treatment is really useful. Even if the physical plausibility of a treatment is zero, as in the case of homeopathy, clinical tests would result in positive outcomes from time-to-time, “false positive” results. This happens even if the tests are performed perfectly, by scientific standards. The standard statistical methods – significance intervals, etc. – that are used in the tests, give valid results only if the methods under testing are relatively plausible. More and more scientists insist that plausibility must play a more important role in the evaluation of clinical trials than it does now, which is practically none. That is why experts tend to avoid using the term “evidence-based medicine” in favor of a new one: “science-based medicine.”

As homeopathy and other CAM practices can present positive clinical tests, generating a new negative one would not make any real difference. A false positive one would not prove anything, either. The real point is that there is no plausible theory about how homeopathy could work, at all. For a rather long time, I also stated that we might know or not know how something works; if it works, then it exists. Now I understand that this approach fails if we routinely test totally implausible phenomena.

I do not think this result was unexpected, but I am rather sad. You put a lot of energy into it, and during the last stages, I also tried my best and we are again back at the starting point.

I am ready to participate in any similar projects or activities in the future. The Hungarian Skeptic Society is also moving forward. We are progressing, and it seems we could overcome the problems about our relationship to the “old skeptics.” We started uniting all skeptic forces in Hungary. Our next target is Uri Geller, who arrives in our country this month. If you have any ideas how to welcome him, please let us know.

Thank you for this report. Again, it was no surprise, but just a disappointment. It illustrates – again – just how much the woo-woo community fears proper tests of their baseless claims. And yes, I have some excellent ideas on how to welcome Mr. Geller back to his homeland. We’ll discuss that, Gábor...

*CORRECTION: We apologize for the ambiguous title and first sentence. The parties are still at work in tests preparations in Greece and negotiations are still going on to finalize the arrangements. By the end of the summer the homeopaths had finally signed an agreement with a Greek hospital to host the test. Transferring the test to Hungary was only an alternative option and its failure – the dismissal from the Hungarian homeopaths – had not halted the preparations.




DON’T MISS THIS

india

On March 3rd, 2008, Sanal Edamaruku, the president of India’s well-known Rationalist International, challenged Pandit Surinder Sharma, said to be India’s most powerful tantrik – “black magician,” to demonstrate his powers on him. It was an unprecedented experiment. After all his chanting of mantras – magic words – and ceremonies of tantra failed, Sharma decided to kill Edamaruku with the “ultimate destruction ceremony” on live TV. The proposed victim agreed, and voluntarily sat on the altar of the black magic ritual. We’re told that as a result, India TV observed skyrocketing viewership rates. No one wants to miss a live-on-TV killing...

Go to tinyurl.com/2ehs4m to see a report on “The Great Tantra Challenge.” Just in case you were worried, Edamaruku is still with us, and remarkably healthy, despite all the evil influences thrown at him, but the details of this farce are fascinating. Quackery, superstition, religious fever, all rolled up into one. Of course, the Sharma forces are scrambling to offer excuses, but we can hope that at least some believers became enlightened…




A REQUEST

Someone named simply, “Nick” asks that we post this notice:

I'd like your help and support in informing your readers about my new video blog, Critical Critique. It's still new but it is in the making of becoming the best video blog with the largest collection of the most informative and educative video articles that encourages critical thinking and evidence-based inquiry/investigation over faith-based living and emotion-driven thinking. You can view it at www.criticalcritique.com

Critical Critique is going to compile and bring the most educative, informative, thought- provoking and relevant video collections available on the internet tgether in one place for everyone's easy reference, which will be labeled according to categories. So, at any time if people wish to look at a specific video for some reason, they can come back to this video blog and quickly retrieve it by simply clicking on the categories.

Subscribers will also receive these videos that will add to their knowledge on any specific subject, all presented by some really good skeptics, scientists, critical thinkers and atheists on the internet, includes your good self. Along with my critiques and descriptions for each video content, I would appreciate viewers critiques in the comment section of this blog too, based on what they think was good or bad about the content of the videos.

The reason I'm doing this is because I've seen a lot of great videos in places like YouTube, Google Video and the rest, but all these are not really categorized in the way I want, especially for what Critical Critique represents. Eventually, these videos get lost and forgotten somewhere in the crowd. I like these really good videos to be seen and remembered by everyone, both by believers and skeptics in all generations. And I like to hear everyone's feedback on it as well. Critiques or comments are important and valuable to Critical Critique. I like to know whether it changed peoples lives in some way, or their understanding or perception, for the better or for the worse? Do they agree or disagree with it, and why? Do they have a testimonial that they want to share with everyone? And so on...

This is another way to make a difference in the world with regards to beliefs and religious differences. It will indirectly attract believers or religion and the supernatural to visit the site and view the videos as well, and I'm sure it might change a lot of minds in the process too.




AIRBORNE NEWS

airborn

At randi.org/joom/content/view/172/27/#i3 last week, we ran an item about the reversal of a quack product, but now we hear that it just may survive the slap-on-the-wrist we reported…

The company agreed to pay more than $23 million in a class-action settlement over false claims in an ad, but that just might be the extent of the damage. It also agreed to refund consumers, who bought Airborne under pretenses that it fights colds, and to pay for ads notifying consumers about the litigation in major publications. Airborne has denied claims of any wrongdoing. Said a rep:

We have tens of thousands of satisfied customers who buy Airborne again and again. Since its inception, Airborne offered a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee… We reached the settlement to avoid mounting expenses related to the litigation. Airborne vigorously disputes the claims and continues to stay behind its denial of liability.

However, there is another lawsuit pending in federal court in New Jersey. The plaintiffs in the case are represented by a group of consumer rights attorneys, who feel that the monetary settlement is not enough. As I pointed out last week, that’s very true. The litigation should have been about stopping the company from bogus marketing of their product. This action reflects recent general attitudes about such false advertising; Pfizer Pharmaceutical, Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough pulled ads that were similarly questionable.




AN ASSIGNMENT…

Here’s an exercise for those of my readers who may wish to offer an explanation to a gentleman who wrote me back in August of 1991. Sorting through ancient letters in a box I came upon, I found a 3-page inquiry from this chap in the UK who just may not have received a response from me, though I’m rather careful to attend to such matters. In any case, I don’t recall the inquiry, nor any answer I might have sent, but find this to be an excellent example of how someone can have genuine doubts about their skepticism after experiencing an event that they find to be inexplicable. Here’s the pertinent part of the letter. Please read it, and send me your analysis…

I must admit to an experience for which I have no explanation. Please, do what you can to rescue me from this intellectually lame position I have had to maintain for 35 years.

The incident occurred during my first year at Merton College… [A domestic servant employed there] suggested that [my friend and I] might find it interesting to go along to a meeting of her spiritualist church. I cannot remember why; perhaps she overheard us discussing religion, as students then, though perhaps not now, were wont to do. We went out of intellectual curiosity, two atheistic socialists eager for a first-hand experience of the people's opiate of a different kind; much more exciting than attending Mass.

In all I think we went, at irregular intervals, four times or five and I cannot remember to which occasion the incident relates. Certainly, it was not the first. The “drill” will be familiar to you: The medium, usually, but not always a woman, requests each member of the congregation to place a personal item, anonymously, on a tray. The tray is then passed to the dais where the medium selects an item at random, holds it up to be seen, and asks to whom it belongs.

The victim calls out “it's mine” and the familiar descriptions of dead loved-ones, complete with details of facial or other physical features and clothing begins, concluding with the comforting message.

In those days I smoked, and my personal item was a cigarette lighter. When it was selected I duly owned up and then the medium, a middle-aged woman from Leytonstone in East London, I remember… asked me a most astonishing question: “Does the name 'Dearlove' mean anything to you?” It did; at the time very little, but more came to light with research.

Ted Dearlove was at one time an insurance agent whose job was to call at the houses of the poor, of which mine was one, collecting the two-penny premiums on the policies designed to make a fortune for the Prudential and leave enough for the decent burial of the contributors. I would emphasize that at the time of the incident I am recounting, I knew nothing except his name, that he was dead and that he had been a “friend of my mother's.” All else I discovered later. Dearlove called at the house for several years when I was a small boy, before giving up his job and becoming a publican [bar-owner] in the same town. According to my elder brother, my mother was in love with him. Because of this alleged relationship and because of his completely unscripted intervention in my life that Tuesday afternoon in Oxford, I toyed with the idea that I was Dearlove's son. I am now inclined to reject this possibility because the physical and psychological similarities between my brother and myself are so great that I must accept that we are of identical parentage. When I replied “yes,” I was given the usual comforting message: “He is watching over you.” That was all.

I would comment as follows:

1) I don’t remember being in need of the message, though I was miserably and hopelessly in love at the time and vaguely suicidal.

2) I knew only Dearlove's name and knew nothing of him as a personality. I had never met him.

3) I knew he was dead, some fifteen years or more, but this knowledge was not significant to me.

4) The medium a) could not have known I would go to her meeting, b) had never met me before, c) could not have got the name from me by thought transference (which I do accept, because it occurs too often in everyday situations to be doubted) because I did not spend my time focused on a person whom I had never met and who was of no significance to me, d) even if she had been given “Dearlove” as a name associated with my family (by the domestic? My family lived in Oxford and it is conceivable that the domestic knew of Dearlove and my family, but I know of no reason why she should have and we lived at opposite ends of the city), she did not know my name and would have looked an obvious fraud if she had guessed wrongly and asked the question of my friend.

I wrote to the medium, whose card I was given, in an attempt to gain some clarification of the incident but, of course, I did not receive a reply.

Please, Mr. Randi, how did she do it? There was nothing general or random about the medium's approach, it was direct and specific. Have you heard of parallel experiences?

I await – with great interest – the comments of SWIFT readers on where the perception of this performance failed to produce an answer…! …!




ANOTHER PET PSYCHIC

Reader Matthew Stikeman, in Canada, reports:

It's happened again. This time, though, it's an out-and-out claim of 100% success for an “animal psychic”! Just this morning, in today's National Post newspaper – in Toronto, Ontario – at the top of page A6, first section no less, is the headline:

Nova Scotia pet psychic locates dog that went missing seven months ago.

Now, that's pretty specific, with no wiggle room to the claim. Either the psycho did or did not locate the dog. No equivocating about "helping," "assisting," or any of that. WOW! I couldn't believe it. Here's the story, as printed:

A dog that went missing seven months ago has been located with the help...

Ah, now we're wavering just a bit – that old weasel word “help” is rearing its sneaky head...

...of a Dartmouth,Nova Scotia, “animal communicator” who says she had a vision of where the pet would be found. Maggie Carruthers had a vision of Lady Belle three weeks ago, says the dog's owner, Josee Poulin:

She said, "I can see Lady Belle. I see two Shelties running and panting and they're [in a meadow]."

Ms. Carruthers said it is usually difficult to communicate with missing dogs...

To say nothing of trying it with those present, no less!

...but noted that Lady Belle's spirit was so strong, she was able to see visions of what the dog was seeing

WOW! looking throught the dog's eyes. Amazing! How does that visual signal get sent to the psycho?

Ms. Poulin had contacted the pet psychic several months ago. Said Ms. Poulin:

She asked me to e-mail a small picture of Lady Belle, and I did that and she started to communicate with her

The SPCA captured Lady Belle on Wednesday night in the same meadow where Ms. Carruthers says she saw here in a vision, and returned her to Ms. Poulin.

Among other problems with this claim and story: I wonder, does it occur to anyone that there's some really fancy fantasizing going on here? The psycho sees through the dog's eyes what hasn't even occured yet! Three weeks ago, she saw through Lady Belle's eyes – by her own claim – where that dog would be on Wednesday, in what was then the future, when it was to be found. It was not yet in the meadow, it had no clue that it would be in the meadow. Yet the psycho saw this, peering into the future, through the dog's eyes! That's a pretty amazing dog, too. Its eyes were able to see into the future and then transmit that visual image to the psycho!

What claptrap. Amazing to think that people believe this nonsense, even more amazing to see it reported this way. Surely either the dog or the psycho would be a great claimant for the Million Dollar Challenge – psychic power, clairvoyance, precogntion and probably a few other tantalizing abilities thrown in just for good measure. How good it would be to show this to be the fraud which it is.

More holes here than in a sieve.




NO WONDER!

Reader Jason Colavito – and others – have offered an explanation for the rather biased “anchor” attitude shown at randi.org/joom/content/view/172/27/#i13::

I'm sure other readers have already pointed this out, but there's a good reason TV anchor Tim White was adamantly opposed to skeptics in the homeopathy piece you ran in Swift. Mr. White is the former anchor of Sightings, which aired from 1992 to 1997 on Fox, then in syndication, and on the Sci-Fi Channel. For those who remember it, Sightings covered topics ranging from alien abductions to ghosts to Bigfoot. To the show's credit, it did try to debunk Fox's alien autopsy video, but that was a rare skeptical moment in an otherwise completely credulous show. It is no surprise, then, that Mr. White is still promoting the same belief system that made him famous years ago.




VERY TRUE

Reader Tim Norfolk at the University of Akron writes:

I loved the Prophet manual in this week's column. In reading it, I saw that one could substitute “economist,” “pundit,” “political scientist” or “educational expert,” everywhere, and it would still be valid.

But let’s get rid of the prophets first, Tim, next the economists…




MOVING FORWARD – MAYBE

smiling bob

A federal court jury in Cincinnati has found the owner of a company that sells phony "male enhancement" tablets and other herbal supplements, guilty of “conspiracy to commit mail fraud,” “bank fraud” and “money laundering.” We’ve all seen the sappy television commercials for “Enzyte” with "Smiling Bob," a goofy character whose life improves with Enzyte, a product which allegedly boosted his sexual prowess.

Steve Warshak, 40, the founder and president of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, which distributes Enzyte and a number of other products alleged to boost energy, manage weight, reduce memory loss and aid restful sleep, could face more than 20 years in prison, and his company could have to pay tens of millions of dollars in fines. Before the hallelujahs, look back at Airborne, please…

The charges are plentiful. Prosecutors claim that customers were bilked out of $100 million through a series of deceptive ads, manipulated credit card transactions and the company's refusal to accept returns or cancel orders. The government also allege that the defendants obstructed investigations by two federal agencies. Some former employees of Enzyte testified that the company created fictitious doctors to endorse the pills, fabricated a customer-satisfaction survey and made up numbers to back claims about the product’s effectiveness.




PBS OFFENDS

Reader Thomas Skala reports:

I awoke this morning eager to turn on my TV so that I could catch my VCR capture of last night's Charlie Rose interview with Stephen Hawking. My TV, still on the local PBS station (WVIZ-Cleveland), came on to a program from Deepak Chopra. I was seven minutes in when I tuned in, but I don't think I missed much.

I am still watching it now (11 minutes in), and I still find myself waiting for the punchline. It really bothers me that PBS – my only trusted source of televised worldly information (I have no cable) is not only showing this, but it now using it to gather contributions from watchers. I have donated in the past, but not for THIS, though maybe I shouldn't be surprised, after the Wayne Dyer series.

However, I thought that I would mention it to you because, if you could see the program, you would appreciate and agree with to the idea that "Doctor" Chopra has embraced his rockstar status: he is wearing boots, worn jeans, suitcoat-over-shirt, and – the point of my comment – glasses with red-sparkled frames. I don't believe that they are actually sequined, but it still makes an impression when he is there on the catwalk with listeners sitting on mats behind him.

Thank you for reading, and I'm sorry that this time I was not able to hold myself back from sharing.




LILIECI CASE SOLVED

lilieci

From reader Mihai Amariutei in Romania, about the ghostly affairs in the town of Lilieci, seen last week at randi.org/joom/content/view/172/27/#i2, comes this revelation:

The ghost story in Lilieci wasn't widely reported around here – I'd never heard of it before reading it in SWIFT, despite my living only about 60 km. from there, just one hour of driving. Then again, it may be that I read the wrong media around here to be up to date on these things. So I searched for more info on the net.

Some relatives believed the culprit was the old lady's grand nephew, who seemingly was always around whenever the strange phenomena manifested. For a lot people, however, the most likely explanation was the recent passing over of a relative without having the last rites – the Eucharist – administered.

So, a full exorcism ritual was performed, with a full team of seven priests led by an archpriest.

The mighty devil was the kid after all – he finally admited to the deeds as a revenge against his grandfather, who threatened to report to the police the theft of US$40 by the child. He scared the policemen just by kicking a bucket under the table with his leg.

By the way, "Lilieci" in Romanian means "Bats", so the vampire asociation you made is quite apt. Lilieci is not a town on its own, just a village in the Hemeiusi commune, near the town of Bacau.

Mihai goes on to describe the atmosphere in his country:

The general situation around here will undoubtely improve, as our education establisment was specifically tasked by law to offer instruction in religious matters in all primary and secondary education. Qualified instructors will be provided by the respective churches and paid from the education budget. Of course it is not good form to teach children conflicting world views in the same institution. Some think this is the wrong aproach and seek help to overturn this.

Such initiatives will fail, of course, as most of the population here (99.9%) is religious and for a public figure to support an action that can be seen as oposing religion, is to commit political suicide, not unlike in the US of A. Unlike the US of A , where the secularisation of the state and education is enshrined in the Constitution for now, in Romania the reverse is true, as criticizing religion may even result in legal troubles.

The textbooks teach that children will be run over by a car if they sin, and present any nonorthodoxism as the work of the devil. GRID, an ad hoc organization, launched a tongue-in-cheek proposal to have Alchemy and Astrology included in the curriculum, too. Mocking the battlecry used by religious establisment – "No Lyceum without God" – their proposed slogans are "No Lycea without Panacea" and "No Scope without Horoscope."

How about “No Sense without Nonsense”...?




A LOSER IS THE WINNER

A comment about the recent “Uri Geller succesor” show in Germany from reader Marc Studtmann:

Mr. Randi, thank you very much for coming to Germany and appear at the "Welt der Wunder" TV-Program and debunk some of the tricks of Uri Geller and the self-proclaimed psychic contesters on his show.

So, now there is a winner and a successor for Uri, who won't actually quit now, I fear. And the winner is...taadaa: Vincent Raven. I was baffled when I heard this. This was probably the guy who blew the most of his tricks. Or maybe that's why he won, because it's fun to watch the weird fella, who knows?

Vincent Raven is a guy who performs his show accompanied by a raven, to which he is married, as it was said when he appeared for the first time on the show. And that very animal is his eye to the "Anderswelt" the "Otherworld," you know, this one with dead people in it and all that stuff. The raven was mostly sitting on a T-shaped bar and sometimes unloading his excrements on the stage, very mysterious! The guy himself is no less strange with his funny accent – he's actually from Switzerland I think, where a lot of woo-woo-guys come from – and speaking to the animal in an invented language.

This is the elected successor of Uri Geller, or is it one of the winners of the show in the other 3 or 4 different countries? I don't know!

I haven't watched the show regularly, because it was too embarrassing, but everything I saw was obvious fakery sold as the real thing.

And so, thank you for shedding some light on this thing for those who believe this to be real. On the "Welt der Wunder" program I really liked the guy who gives seminars where you can learn telekinesis and telepathy. I liked the part where he claimed to alter the consciousness of a metal plate and tell it that he is magnetic, so that it will stick on his chest. Well, I'm not an expert on the “psycholgy of metals,” but I don't think that metal plates actually have a consciousness. After having told the plate that it should kindly adhere to him, he wandered across the room so stiff and bent backwards, that even the metal plate – conscious as it is – must have thought of him as an idiot.




THAT POT HEAD MAN

pot head man

Marc just mentioned another “magnetic man” stunt artist, which leads me to explain a puzzle I offered you last week. We asked you to guess who the man was with a pot stuck to his forehead. This guy – Miroslaw Magola – has been around for years, festooned with pots and pans, spray cans and various household utensils. It’s even possible that he’s deluded, and really believes he’s “magnetic.” I first heard of him in October of 1996, when we were only offering as a prize the pledges of those who volunteered them, and at that moment it stood at US$776,000. At that time, Magola had some London lawyers write to us, but did not tell us what his claimed “power” was. Then his legal representative, Victor Romiszewski, informed us that:

Our client confirms he can lift items from place to place without holding the items. He can wave his hand (and arm) with the attached item vigorously to show how strong the item is attracted to his hand. He can also lift items from the floor with the use of his forehead. (ie by the item being attracted or attached to the forehead). All the above is done without trickery (ie like adhesive, glue etc) and he can attract items up to the weight of 1kg. The main point of his ability is that by lifting the objects he is defying the present laws of gravity which probably is a very interesting fact at least for the world of science. He can also attract the objects using his chest, stomach and shoulders.

At this point we would like confirmation from you whether he is suitable within your specific needs as a challenger for the Psychic Challenge. Obviously there is not [any] point in pursuing this matter if you are not interested in our client.

We await hearing from you.

I responded:

The reward as it presently stands is US$971,000. It increases almost daily. And, yes, we are definitely interested in the claim made by your client. However, based upon your description, this sounds like the common "bio-magnetic power” claim that I have examined many times before in various parts of the world, particularly in Russia. If so, it does not fall within the designation "paranormal" or "supernatural."

Let me explain. All demonstrations I have seen of this claim, involve placing various objects (coins, flatirons, books, bottles, etc.) onto a body surface such as the hand, chest, forehead, arms, or back. The surface used is inclined away from the vertical, and the objects remain in position simply by friction and the adhesion offered by natural perspiration. In all cases, I have dusted the surface with talcum powder, and the objects have then slipped off. There is nothing supernatural, paranormal, or in any way unusual about such a claim. It is well within the established parameters of physics. As for lifting objects "from the floor with the use of his forehead," this can easily be done by anyone, using flat objects like coins or small plates, and the natural skin oils present.

Your letter uses the phrase "he can attract items up to the weight of 1 kg." I remind you that "attract" means (Webster's Dictionary) "to draw by a physical force, causing to approach." This would be similar to the manner in which a magnet draws small iron objects to itself, without touching the objects. Can Mr. Magola do this? Without touching it first, can he draw towards himself' a 1 kg weight?

That was the last I heard from Mr. Magola or his lawyers, until he wrote again in 2003 – with the prize now at US$1,000,000 – from Munich, Germany. He provided another rambling discussion of his claimed powers, and a video that clearly showed he was using the same methods I’d seen so many, many, times before. See randi.org/jr/082704gluton.html#7 for another mention of talcum powder, which appears to bring on severe allergic reactions in “magnetic” people…

Here’s just part of what Magola’s flacks say about him on his own web page:

“Magnetic Man” Miroslaw Magola defies laws of gravity with an extraordinary ability – applying the power of psycho kinesis [sic] he can raise anything from metal pans to marble statues, transport them through the air to affix to his body, then creates a force to keep them there – simply using mind control.

An avid enthusiast of the phenomenon of psychic energy, Miroslaw has developed his skill to manipulate lifeless objects in mid-air to obey his will, even forcing them spin around or shake. His mental powers are so keen that he can jump around while an object is stuck to his head without losing his mental grasp of the item. Miroslaw explains how he employs psycho kinetics [sic] to perform these uncanny feats, “It works because I load myself with energy (I connect myself to it) and at the same time I wish for the object to raise [sic].” Miroslaw has undergone numerous tests for his perplexing skill which remains unexplained by conventional science to date.

Mr. James Randi, of American James Randi Education Foundation (J.R.E.F), who has spent much of his life to debunk paranormal phenomenon and occurrences world-wide, does not dispute the authenticity of Magola’s talents.

In January 1997, Dr. M. Karger of the German Max Plank Institute examined Magola´s abilities. During a test using items for which some were supplied, he was able to touch the objects at all times and even attach them to Miroslaw himself. Without physical contact, Magola raised a cup, tilting it along horizontal and vertical axes. He kept it hovering in the air, moved it around and set it down. Although Miroslaw Magola has received world-wide notice, he remains unaffected by the attention. His passion is for the scientific investigation into psycho kinetics [sic] and paranormal abilities and to gain their widespread acceptance.

“The key to humanity’s advancement is the study of our own bodies” says Magola.

That comment about my involvement with Magola is – to put it kindly – a damn lie. Just to set things straight, Miroslaw Magola is an unwashed man with sticky skin who does a simple, juvenile stunt that can be totally defeated with a few grams of talcum powder. He’s a fake, a trickster, a liar. When will I see this quoted on his website, I wonder? And when will Magola treat us to a hovering cup, or transport a marble statue through the air? I can’t wait…!

And don’t neglect going to the hilarious “levitation” site: tinyurl.com/2sa8kj. Reading the comments, it seems evident that no one caught on! The very first photo should do it…




UNLIKELY PENGUINS

Reader Matt Maddock gives us his thoughts...

Randi, you are a hero and your beard puts mine to shame! Keep up the good work, championing reason and reality in the face of the increasing pile of lunacy that we find ourselves presented with!

I have lost count of the number of occasions upon which I have seen some woo credophile fire out the challenge that someone must prove the non-existence of their chosen fairy substitute. As a life-long scientist the notion that one cannot prove a negative is deeply ingrained into me, but it seems that, to many, this basic principle is anathema. I thought, therefore, that I might try my hand at providing a plain-speak explanation of that principal and why the burden of proof must lie with the woos. Having written it, I found myself at a loss as to what to do with it, so I thought, perhaps, it might find a home with the JREF.

Still waiting for the tartan penguin, Matt.

What follows is something we might all want to remember, if and when this argument arises. Mind you, some negatives can be proven, such as, “I am not made of lithium.” The definition of lithium, what constitutes one’s mass, and a few definitions are required, but I think I can prove that negative, rather definitively. I can also quibble about “first-hand sensory experiences.” We magicians provide those regularly, and they just may not represent reality. However, Matt deals here with the more important and basic matters with which we are faced in everyday life; not many of us encounter magicians... He writes:

I do not believe in tartan penguins.

I have no direct experience with penguins and I am no zoologist, but I know a few (zoologists, not penguins) and I understand a fair range of the basic principles that might affect such matters (penguins, not zoologists). I love the idea of a tartan penguin, don’t get me wrong; nothing would make me happier than to see a waddling little butler sprucing the Antarctic up a little with a nice Burnet plaid.

However, I do not believe in tartan penguins and, yes, that makes me a little sad.

The reasons for my incredulity are myriad. First and foremost, I have never seen a tartan penguin. I realise that I have never seen a whole host of things in which I do believe, but first hand sensory experience is my first line of reasoning. It is not, however, the only line of reasoning. Were I to see a tartan penguin, my first act would be to fetch someone else, preferably someone I trust, and to ask them if they could also see said dapper bird. I would wish to inspect it closely, to check it for the smell of drying paint, to look for zippers and, in extremis, to have my own blood-work done to ensure that I was not under the influence of any hallucinogenic substance. If after all that I still had a tartan penguin, then I would begin seriously to believe in it.

I cannot prove that they do not exist, however. I might spend a lifetime in the Antarctic collecting penguins and even if (as I confidently predict) none of them were tartan in colouration, I could not say for certain that there would not be one just behind the next rock.

If someone were to come to me and claim that they had such a bird, well, what a wonder! Of course I would like to see it! All that would be required to prove that the thing exists would be for that person to bring that bird forward.

They might provide photographs, but those could be faked. They might provide a host of witnesses, but they could all be mistaken, paid, mad or just up for a giggle. However, were they to bring me one – just one – example of a genuinely tartan penguin – one which remained a tartan penguin under the conditions given above – then I would believe in it. All my previous statements would be negated, I would humbly climb down and admit to the world that, in fact, there’s a Black-Watch clan aquatic bird in our midst.

I can never, ever, prove beyond doubt that there is no such thing, but everything I do know about evolution, energy conservation, the food chain, camouflage and entropy (and other things besides), backed up by the rigorously documented work and experimentation of a great number of people who are all cleverer than I, tells me that a naturally tartan penguin is simply not in the cards. The weight of evidence against it is overwhelming.

But imagine when someone claims that they have found a whole community of such things! Naturally, I would find myself sceptical of the claim, given the weight of evidence on my side. However, all that this person would have to do to utterly destroy my point of view and prove their own would be to produce one single, solitary example of the genus. That’s all.

But then the excuses would start; the penguins do not like to travel (fair enough, I’ll go to them) – the penguins are only tartan every first Tuesday of the month and it’s Wednesday 4th (right! I am prepared to wait 30 days to see this bird) – the penguin is only tartan when it’s not observed...

...it doesn’t take long before the excuses become unbelievable. Even when offered $1 million to provide any concrete evidence of the tartan penguin, no one can produce it.

Therefore, I am afraid, I still do not believe in tartan penguins. All I ask to prove me wrong is one simple example, just one, to counter the overwhelming weight of evidence that backs up my position; yet no one will produce it.

Perhaps you can see what I’m driving at?

Matt, I also didn’t see any statement of just what standards you’d accept for this bird to meet the definition, but perhaps I’m being ungracious...




ADELAIDE WOO-WOO

The staff of the neighborhood library in Adelaide reported to superiors that they felt “uncomfortable” at night when alone in the building. This, of course, could only mean that something supernatural had to be behind the feeling, since quiet old buildings at night are always comfortable, cozy, places in which to work. Duh. So the powers-that-be, the local council, naturally acted rationally and called on a ghostbuster to save the employees from terminal goosebumps… The Tea Tree Gully Council, in Adelaide’s outer suburbs, summoned a “spiritual adviser” to rid the building of spirits – but the council has assured everyone that it was not an exorcism, though that’s specifically what an exorcism is designed to do! Did the advisor just advise the spooks to go away?

No, the carefully non-denominational adviser is believed to have performed a séance in one of the library's toilets. Why the council didn’t hire a plumber in the first place, was not discussed, nor do we have any report of the success or failure of the non-exorcism… However, the council's marketing manager, Mark Horton, said:

Library managers, keen to ensure their staff remained happy and comfortable in their workplace, secured this service at their own expense, in their own time and with full support of library staff.

Everyone was woo-woo on this one…




HOMEPATHY ALERT

Reader – and Skepchick – Tracy King writes:

I get regular alerts about new market research, and today received news about a new study by Global TGI [Target Group Index] into the alt.med market worldwide, with a focus on homeopathy. A whopping 94% of people in India trust homeopathy, with the USA coming in at 18% and the UK the lowest at 15%. My blog entry about it is here: skepchick.org/blog/?p=1082

Judging from the number of homeopathic outlets I’ve seen in the UK, and the fact that the Royal Family – especially Charles, of course – endorse it, that 15% surprises me...




IN CLOSING…

Due to a variety of circumstances, we still have very limited space available on our Galapagos cruise this August 8-18. We were previously sold out! This is a second chance for those of you who wanted to go but didn't register. We have until May 1st to fill this space, so don't delay. More information is available at http://www.amazingmeeting.com.

Again, very busy. Preparing for a trip to the UK, Penn State, and the MIT Media Lab...


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