Answers From An Ivory Tower, Marching Into the 17th Century, How Wrong Can You Get?, Tightening the Woo-Woo Limits, Oklahoma Is Not “OK” for Psychic, Official Dutch Woo-Woo, I Sense a Joke, Time-Keeping Problems, From a Different Viewpoint, Shades of Project Alpha, Advisory, More Free Energy, In The New York Times, and In Closing...
Ever since I first came upon the worldwide community of dowsers, I’ve been aware of how fearful they are of having their favored delusions questioned. Since dowsers constitute – by far – the most frequent applicants for the JREF million-dollar prize, I’ve tried to encourage them to stand back and take a look at their own claims, and that suggestion has been steadfastly resisted.
ANSWERS FROM AN IVORY TOWER
Ever since I first came upon the worldwide community of dowsers, I’ve been aware of how fearful they are of having their favored delusions questioned. Since dowsers constitute – by far – the most frequent applicants for the JREF million-dollar prize, I’ve tried to encourage them to stand back and take a look at their own claims, and that suggestion has been steadfastly resisted. In fact, a notice went out years ago to members of the American Society of Dowsers – see www.dowsers.org/join_us.htm – to ignore any offer from the JREF – or from me, personally – to test the fundamental dowsing claim, that a forked stick, pendulum, parallel wires, or other similar simple device could be used to find water, other substances, persons, dogs, or lost items. In effect, this was putting up a barrier to any and all possible questioning or investigation of the basic dowsing claim.
Now, from reader Bruce Meinsen in North Haven, Connecticut, comes an interesting and revealing exchange. He explains:
I was conducting some research on dowsing and noted that a few years ago you had extended an invitation – to claim the JREF prize – to some 40 members of the American Society of Dowsers, with no response, at least part of which was apparently due to the fact that many of the contact addresses were no longer valid. I located a copy of the most recent ASD newsletter online (March, 2008) and contacted a Mr. Leroy Bull, who was listed as the Regional Vice President of the Northeast Region. I thought you might be interested in my letter to him and his very prompt (and unedited) response. Evidently, proving that dowsing works is no longer a part of the ASD philosophy, and a member attempting to do so to interested parties is threatened with loss of membership. In addition, it appears that the "old" laws of physics have changed to accomodate the ASD membership and the "new" ones enjoy a place at their table – perhaps for a lobster dinner with apples and oranges for dessert?
Bruce Meinsen had written to Mr. Bull:
I have an interest in dowsing but have a question prior to ponying up the membership fee: Does dowsing really work? From what I have seen, it appears that dowsing relies on something called the ideomotor effect: the influence of suggestion or expectaton on involuntary and unconscious motor behavior. I've witnessed some dowsing experiments with proper controls and all have failed to detect water in a manner exceeding that of pure chance. Since you have an entire society devoted to the art of dowsing and one of your stated purposes is to "Cooperate with individuals and organizations doing research on dowsing phenomena and publishing their findings," I wonder if members of your organization would truthfully follow your creed and submit to a controlled test of dowsing. The James Randi Educational Foundation of Fort Lauderdale, Florida offers an award of one million dollars (!) to any person or organization who can prove that dowsing is something more than a chance operation. I see from your latest newsletter that the ASD is in dire financial need and this seems to be a perfect way to fill the coffers, so what do you say to taking the test? If you win the prize, all your monetary troubles will be over and the world will beat a path to your door. If not, well, perhaps you need to rethink your position on the true nature of dowsing. My guess is that even if you lose you'll be in no worse shape than you were before, so why not try? I await your answer with great interest..
Mr. Bull quickly replied:
If you have to “pony up” to get $40 for an ASD membership, you need another source of income not a hobby of dowsing. When I was president of ASD we had a very experienced dowser who wanted to “represent ASD” and go play with Randy [sic] ok. At a board of trustee meeting we sent him a letter saying that he has free will. If he wants to play that game it is fine, but you will not do it representing ASD as you will loose [sic] your membership if you do. Randy [sic] is an experienced showman not a contender for a humanitarian award.
I think this official response from Mr. Leroy Bull, Regional Vice President of the Northeast Region of the American Society of Dowsers, expresses the ASD position very well: they fear any confrontation with reality, there is no evidence whatsoever that their “art” or “gift” actually works, they have a very comforting and colorful delusion going for them, and they cherish their smug ignorance.
So be it...
MARCHING INTO THE 17th CENTURY
Well, let’s hear it for the community of Land 'O Lakes, Florida, a sterling example of how well state authorities can enforce the rules and regulations that ensure school kids are adequately protected. “Land ‘O Lakes” has 21,000 inhabitants, and is sometimes joshingly referred to as, “LOL,” which as we all know is also current short-speak for “Laughing Out Loud.” This parallel is easily explained.
Right in front of his classroom at Rushe Middle School, substitute teacher Jim Piculas – evidently carried away with an attack of the crazies – did a 30-second magic trick last week in which a toothpick disappeared, then reappeared. Damn! He was promptly fired. Yes, Rushe's principal requested that Piculas be dismissed. And the official charge from the school district that resulted in his discharge? Wizardry!
I got a call in the middle of the day from the head of supervisors of substitute teachers. He said, “Jim, we have a huge issue, you can't take any more assignments. You need to come in right away,” he said.
When Piculas went in to see the supervisor, he learned that his little magic trick – ‘cause that’s what it really was, you see, folks, this was a trick! – had gone much farther than he'd intended. The super told him he’d been accused of wizardry. Duh.
Now, my readers will know that I’m a professional magician by trade. I’ve been accused of all sorts of things, but no adult person has ever, ever, accused me of wizardry. I swear. Bad tricks, yes, but the dreaded charge of wizardry, never! Confronted by the local media in Land ‘O Lakes, this befuddled supervisor immediately launched into other problems with Mr. Piculas’ performance as a substitute teacher, and Jim has his own opinion of that:
That... I think was embellished after the fact to try to cover what initially what they were saying to me.
Of course, the Internet and the media are chortling over this giant step backwards in education. One comment was that Piculas might apply to Hogwarts for a teaching position. There have been suggestions made – in jest, I trust! – about burning this heretic, and the state has been referred to as, “Flori-duh!” – which I tend to agree with…
Now, either version of this story – the one told by the wizard, or the one offered by the school superintendant – might be hyperbolized, but the fact remains: doing a simple conjuring trick seems to have caused consternation among authorities who we might think have better things to do with their authority and their time. I hesitate to even imagine what might happen to me if I were to show up in Land ‘O Lakes and do a card trick. Visions of a stake and a bonfire flit through my mind…
HOW WRONG CAN YOU GET?
A possible prize applicant named Chrissy Smith sent in this note, apparently in an attempt to bypass the challenge protocol, dazzle us with a “reading,” and set us back on our collective heels… She wrote:
I obtained the following information psychically through meditating about James [Randi] and his life.
Now be prepared for a classic rendition of a psychic “reading.” This is the sort of fuzzy, inconsequential rambling that these folks deliver, hoping to hit a few facts. I’ll follow at least part of this document with an analysis… Here goes:
James grew up between the city and country, in the suburbs but near country roads. I see him wandering around alone as a youngster. He liked watching insects and learnt a lot socially from watching their interactions with each other. I see no siblings but there is a sister, possibly a sister of his mother ie an aunt. I also see him down at the docks/port watching ships particularly a big white one and wishing he could go to sea, longing to travel.
738 words. Where do I start…? Let’s go:
1. James grew up between the city and country, in the suburbs but near country roads.
No, I grew up among paved roads. It was a strictly urban environment.
2. I see him wandering around alone as a youngster.
True, I did. I’ve related that fact many times, in print and in person during lectures.
3. He liked watching insects and learnt a lot socially from watching their interactions with each other.
Yes, I looked at bugs, but had no interest in their social interactions.
4. I see no siblings but there is a sister, possibly a sister of his mother ie an aunt.
Wrong. I have two siblings, one of each gender.
5. I also see him down at the docks/port watching ships particularly a big white one and wishing he could go to sea, longing to travel.
Never an interest of mine, and seagoing ships were never seen by me, as a child.
6. I sense that his father was not around much, away frequently when young then not there at all. Mother was upset by letter/s.
My father was alive and “there” until I was well into adulthood. He travelled as a salesman, but not for more than a few days at a time. He seldom – if ever – sent letters to my mother.
7. I see his mother as having a very sunny disposition, being pretty and having brown waved hair tied at the back. I can see her in a flowery 40s/50s dress. She used to sing and was very talented but did not pursue this. She used to tie James' tie and kiss him on the forehead until he got too tall. She was quite short and slight. She was very close to James and loved him completely. James used to argue with her all the time over everything and was quite a difficult child but she never minded. She encouraged James. She was not Canadian but an immigrant – Eastern European? When she was older she had a dodgy heart and I can also see her coughing when she was old. James always looked after her when he was earning money and sent her money and was very protective of her. She followed his career closely and was very proud. It was the saddest day of James life when she died and he still misses her. He has a case containing some of her clothes and a few other bits and pieces of hers, which he keeps safe. Their relationship was very close.
Okay, I’ll close this debacle right here. Every word of this last 200-word guess about my mother is simply wrong. Most of what also follows in this miserable “reading,” is similarly very wrong, and one name is obviously gleaned from my bio data. As for the “pets” guess, she couldn’t be further off. I hope “Chrissy” will spare me the “Oh, I was thinking of another person and got all mixed up!” alibi… And I note that she chooses the popular closing-with-an-obvious-guess ploy: “In the next few months James will meet someone who he has wanted to meet for a long time.” Chrissy, this happens to me just about every week.
TIGHTENING THE WOO-WOO LIMITS
Following this month’s tightening of formerly lenient regulation of British mediums, psychics and healers, those same scam-artists in Australia soon find themselves subject to tougher consumer protection laws, as well. In Britain, the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, has been repealed this month, superseding the Witchcraft Act, which was drafted into law back in 1735. New regulations leave British “mediums” open to legal action if they don't provide a series of disclaimers before performing their services. Motivated by concerns that some spiritualists and other opportunists prey on the vulnerable, inducing or prolonging emotional suffering, the Australian skeptics are calling for a similar toughening of legislation. Some seventy people have contacted Consumer Affairs Victoria over the past year seeking advice or lodging complaints about psychics, clairvoyants and fortune tellers.
Lynne Kelly, Melbourne author of The Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal, seen here with Barry Williams, says that regulating spiritualists is difficult, but the damage they may do, intentionally or unwittingly, can be immense. She says:
Psychics say they're helping by bringing closure, but often they're keeping the wound open…
Terry Kelly, president of the Victorian Skeptics, says that self-regulation is inadequate:
I'm a social worker, I've done a lot of grief and loss counseling and run grief and loss groups. You get people who go off to see these psychics who claim to be speaking directly to the dead person. There are plenty of tricks the psychics can use, and the result is that the grieving person isn't actually dealing with the death at all.
Kelly also suggests that if psychics can actually speak to the dead, why has nobody claimed the A$110,000 prize offered in Australia and the $US1 million ($A1.07 million) that the JREF is offering, to anybody whose psychic claims can stand rigorous scientific testing? Good question, that…!
Laws, though, can be slow to change, even in Australia. Consumer Affairs Victoria has advised that consumers are already protected by the Fair Trading Act 1999, which applies to all Victorian traders, including those providing psychic and occult services, and says the Government has no plans to introduce new regulations. Umm, perhaps they should take a second look, I think…
OKLAHOMA IS NOT “OK” FOR PSYCHIC
From reader Bryan Farha comes this item…
Denver’s alleged psychic Jeff Baker claims to have found every one of the approximately 100 missing bodies he’s telepathically searched for. Baker, a top-four-contestant on Lifetime’s “America’s Psychic Challenge,” volunteered his services to the Woodward, Oklahoma, Sheriff’s Department to assist in finding the presumed-dead body of 6-year old Logan Tucker – for the purpose of family closure. As usual, I went on local TV to call his antics immoral. Baker led authorities to six areas where he thought the body could be buried. Despite his playing the numbers game – success rate increases for each additional area searched – Baker failed to find the body. So now his record is 100 out of 101, apparently.
Though reader Farha doesn’t mention it, there exists no evidence whatsoever about the claim Baker made – that he’d “found every one of the approximately 100 missing bodies he’d telepathically searched for.” That statement from him was simply accepted by “America’s Psychic Challenge” – without challenge, if you will. Why take the chance of spoiling a perfectly, suitably, preposterous claim, by actually looking into it?
The plain fact is that the only two Baker “psychic” searches actually examined here, were wrong. That’s one hundred percent wrong, and I choose to accept that demonstration of his accuracy… But have no doubt, the 100/102 percentage will be gleefully quoted and eagerly accepted. That’s the way Creating a Myth works…
As often happens, the grieving parents of Cori Baker also went right along with perpetuating the myth. To read their comments published on Jeff Baker’s web site, you’d never know that Cori is still not located. They gushed:
Jeff's ability to do mediation with Cori was amazing and very real. Although communicating with someone who is on the other side is very difficult and physically tiring for both Jeff and the deceased, he and Cori were able to communicate regarding her approximate whereabouts. Cori was also able to let us know that she was ok and that she loved us very much.
What preposterous pap! And where did this “approximate” come from? These parents still have no notion of whether the girl is alive or dead, and whether anything Jeff might have said has anything to do with her location! And if this guess by Baker turns out to be another example of a classic SBBB – Sylvia Browne Bigtime Blunder – of the kind when she screwed up in January of last year by telling the parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that he was dead, when he was only two blocks away, perfectly healthy – will we have a new contender for “America’s Psychic Loser”?
I must admit that I’m comforted by the assurance this “psychic” gave the parents that Cori was “ok” and loved them very much. When you push any “psychics” button, that's the first thing they say. That, and a hint that their guesses should be supported by word and deed…
OFFICIAL DUTCH WOO-WOO
From reader Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro in Sweden we received a news item of interest.
The Dutch are pretty level-headed folks, generally speaking. However, there are obviously some woo-woo-oriented officials in government agencies there who have yet to complete the suggested course in Reality 101. One such is Luc Winants, the Social Affairs councilor in the city of Maastricht, who has introduced the technique of “regression/reincarnation therapy” as a means to get long-term unemployed people back to work. Winants calls this a “spiritual method for helping the unemployed.” The idea is that “coming to terms with past lives” will help them find jobs.
Duh. The only unemployed Dutch who will benefit from this are the quacks who will be hired to prescribe the 10-week courses, at US$1,421 a shot… Incredibly, uncooperative welfare claimants in Maastricht have been informed that they will lose unemployment benefits unless they accept the guidance of a regression quack to help them get in touch with their past lives!
Ah, but there’s validation to be had for this codswallop. One Klaas Boffcher, at the Dutch Ruach Boraka Centre for Complementary Therapy – no less – says he uses the technique
…to help people find experiences from past identities that could be negatively affecting them today. It is very useful. When someone has a problem finding work it is often more about the need to find out about themselves. Reincarnation therapy can help. Reincarnation therapy is regression to a previous life. People’s complaints and problems have causes not just in the present but also in previous lives.
I certainly agree that reincarnation therapy is regression.
But then this dreary reality-based “science” nonsense intrudes on this dreamy scenario. Marcus Huibers, a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Maastricht University, is less than impressed with this huge stride forward into the modern world. Says he:
We are speaking here of an entirely obscure therapy that does not even merit the term “therapy.”
What was that sudden refreshing breeze I sensed? Do we have a dissenting opinion? Thank you, Professor Huibers! Just as edifying, the Dutch social affairs minister is facing growing complaints about why therapies including reincarnation, tarot card readings and astrology are getting government funding as part of efforts to get people back to work. The Dutch unemployed and people on incapacity benefits can get state hand-outs of up to US$7,900 to pay for courses to help them find work, and in 2007, up to 42,500 people signed up for “spiritually-based personal development programs.”
Let’s hope that the pragmatic Dutch continue to get their act together and weed out the woo-woo agents…
I SENSE A JOKE…
Reader Paul May found a site: www.fdhom.co.uk/index.asp, that sells homeopathic remedies – but they tell the truth about it, and sell it specifically and explicitly as a placebo. It may be a spoof site, as a look at some of the testimonials hints, but it's refreshing anyway. We hadn’t seen this, and we congratulate the authors!
Reader Brad Tittle calls attention to an aspect of astrology that got my attention when I first stumbled upon it some 70 years ago. Referring to last week’s item at tinyurl.com/3szuhg, he writes:
In reference to "Wow, Astrology Doesn't Work!" and specifically the part where "Birth time is vital," I can't help but reminisce on the births of both of my children. While I might grant that the birth times are accurate to the nearest 10-minute interval, assigning any more accuracy is ignorant.
Though Brad doesn’t deal with the rather significant element of latitude variance when using the “1 minute = 1 mile” approximation, it hardly makes any difference, since gods like Venus, Mars, and Jupiter have all eternity to deal with, and time-zones wouldn’t matter much to them. And who the hell cares? Only astrologers, and they only care that the horoscopes continue to get attention...
FROM A DIFFERENT VIEWPOINT
A fan of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, reacting to last week’s item on that subject at swift-may-2-2008-2.html#i2, informed me of her investigation of their tolerance of the creationist tours. She wrote:
The Denver Museum is NOT ignorant of the BC tours, nor is it choosing to remain ignorant. I took the opportunity to ask about BC tours after I saw the video and blogged about it: http://splendidelles.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/creationists-are-pure-evil/
Well, I hope this serves as an apology to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I was being insensitive to what their probable attitude was in regard to these woo-woos. I now fully understand why they must tolerate the bumblers, though I’d suggest that putting up a sign advising museum clients that the opinions being expressed are not necessarily those of the museum, and certainly not those of science, would be very satisfying to many of us…
YES – AN IMPORTANT SITE!
Reader Trevor Agnitti sends us this welcome alert:
I did a search of your site and I didn't see any mention of a cool site called whatstheharm.net. It is a site devoted to documenting all known and verifiable cases of woo-woo causing harm. Take a look and pass on the link if you deem it cool.
Freezing, Trevor. How could I have missed this...?
SHADES OF PROJECT ALPHA
Reader Simon Nicholson engaged in an experiment, and tells us all about it:
I thought I would share with you a little tomfoolery experiment I have recently performed. While browsing through the Yahoo Answers website, I came across a plea from a young lady asking for someone to carry out a Psychic Reading for her on line. I have seen similar requests and have been amused and dismayed in equal measure to see the responses from people seriously claiming to be able to analyze a person and predict the future etc without so much as meeting them. Then I recalled seeing a video of you addressing a class of students and giving them what they believed to be unique personality profiles based on astrology, and after they had acknowledge the accuracy of the details, you revealed they had all in fact been given exactly the same profile.
Simon, the UK project sails along very well. We already have a few potential applicants in the UK, and the interest is high. I only ask readers not to apply, yet, as we’re not quite prepared to process the applications with a UK staff. Thanks.
Last week’s spam-the-spammer suggestion stands. Consider: This man is not just a nuisance, he’s a compulsive, dedicated attacker of our freedom of speech and opinion who has caused serious damage to many of our readers and supporters by jamming and incapacitating their systems with trash and with – literally – many thousands of long spam entries that are often difficult to filter out and avoid. Though the JREF was relieved of this idiot’s efforts early on through the professional use of carefully-designed and applied spam-defeating software, and we have thereby been protected from invasion, many of our readers were subject to his assaults and underwent serious difficulties.
He’s now learning what it’s like to be attacked. My system reports that he’s redoubled his efforts to “spam” me, sending rafts of it my way. All I get is a notification of the number of attempts made, but I never see the content. It’s keeping him busy, and that’s just fine with me! He has adopted several different identities, desperately flailing out wildly to do as much damage as he can. This is behavior of the typical juvenile-with-a-keyboard who hasn’t the courage nor the wit to confront those he perceives as The Enemy, but chooses to snipe at them from the safety of the Internet. He’s frantic. He’s reckless. He’s frustrated.
And he’s dangerous.
MORE FREE ENERGY
To see an excellent example of the thought-processes of a typical perpetual-motion or free-energy inventor, go to www.surphzup.com/gpage3.html and see his 16,000 words of explanation – on that page alone! – on how to build his machine. The crux of the whole tirade lies in the section beginning “It is at this point”. Go there, and read just that small section. All else is simply blather…
I posted him the simple question, “Does your machine work? on his e-mail, and he replied, referring not to the one you see described here in such detail, but to a previous one:
the first machine? yes? but if you had read anything anywhere you would know that. Skeptic i presume, glancing, not reading. it ran a car radio, not huge power but it still worked.
These are the dreamers…
IN THE NEW YORK TIMES
From reader Paul Armel we received a disturbing letter:
The New York Times has an ethics column (The Ethicist) every Sunday written by Randy Cohen. Readers send in questions about situations they have heard about or faced in which ethical issues are raised. I decided to send Mr. Cohen the following:
Just why is reader Armel so alarmed over this biographical treatment of “Queen” Louise Hay? Consider these facts: She is the head of Hay House, the company that publishes the work – among others – of writers Wayne Dyer, Ben Stein, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Sylvia Browne and Doreen Virtue – all crackpot and woo-woo authors who we’ve come upon before. Last year, Hay House sold 6.3 million products, taking in $100 million. And why such a select group of authors? Because Ms. Hay herself is a dedicated woo-woo.
It started for her back in 1984 when she wrote “You Can Heal Your Life.” In the 1970s, she became a “Religious Science” practitioner, telling her victims that by simply making “affirmations,” they were healed. She took up Transcendental Meditation, then in 1998 – she says – she developed cervical cancer, and healed herself of it by “forgiveness” therapy, along with nutrition, reflexology, and enemas. There are no medical records or other proof of this claim, of course. Ask her about the causes of disease, and she’ll tell you that a probable cause of Alzheimer’s disease is
…a desire to leave the planet. The inability to face life as it is.
And, she says, a probable cause of “anorectal bleeding” is “anger and frustration” while a probable cause of leprosy is “inability to handle life at all.” By 1984, Hay had included her list of quack cures in her book “You Can Heal Your Life,” which also contained such affirmations as “it is essential that we stop worrying about money and stop resenting our bills,” and stated that carpal tunnel syndrome and cellulite are both “caused by anger.” These revelations will surprise any sane person who recognizes bacteria, viruses, overeating, failing body functions, and other basic problems as “more probable” causes of ailments.
The New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer can be read in its entirety at tinyurl.com/5fwec2. It is comprehensive, indeed, but our reader Armel is justified in being alarmed by the fact that casual readers – and readers of excerpts that are bound to appear in other venues – could very well come away with the impression that Louise Hay’s success is the result of providing genuine medical help to readers. On the contrary, Hay has promoted, endorsed, and distributed seriously dangerous quackery and half-truths by publishing the drivel that her authors have handed her. How many lives have been truncated by this woman, cannot ever be guessed at, and The New York Times should have provided – at the very least – some sort of simple caveat.
A warning that bomb-manufacture can be dangerous, would be similarly appreciated.
Go to www.samharris.org/ and if you can, contribute to Sam’s new research project, please.
To see yet another example of the sort of incomprehensible material we receive re the JREF challenge, just click in on this scan of a letter…
And here’s something that really got my attention. I think I understand some of the basic physics behind it, but I’m asking my readers to offer me more… It’s quite a puzzler, in many ways, but I just know I’ll find answers in the vast talent-pool that reads SWIFT every week. Go to tinyurl.com/4kqcjn and play the 1 minute/24 second video...