I just recently returned from the latest JREF cruise (our sixth such Amaz!ng Adventure!) to Belize, Mexico, and the Yucatan Peninsula in the company of some seventy JREF supporters exploring the idea that despite widely reported "Maya doomsday prophecies," the end of the world is not imminent. It was a week of delight, and though I’d at first pictured it as one of those rather duty-free periods, I, D.J., and his partner Thomas, put in some long but very useful and satisfying hours with the skeptics on board, in which we exchanged many good ideas and all learned from one another. Jamy Ian Swiss was – as always – a star, and Ben Radford provided several appearances that recounted his experiences investigating – in depth – a number of puzzles, enigmas, and just plain hoaxes of the region. Toni van Pelt lectured on complementary and alternative medicine funding and shared her experience as a Washington lobbyist and political activist for pro-reason causes. Jennifer Michael Hecht dazzled all with her talks on the intellectual history of doubt, and D.J. gave eye-opening talks on magic and skepticism, prophecy (and his experiences in a doomsday cult!) and an inspiring talk about skepticism around the world. A surprise presenter was the great Dr. Harriet Hall, who gave an excellent talk about various aspects of scientific misbehavior with which she’s become familiar. I butted in from time to time, of course, and gave a couple of well-received talks myself.
Probably the best aspect of our week together was the important group discussion sessions. A really grand time was experienced by all. Of the cruises we have done so far, I’d say that on this one, there was the strongest feeling of camaraderie and community. One of our Amaz!ng Adventurers described it as one of the peak experiences of his life!
As for the cruise line – Norwegian – well, it stuffed our cabins with various opportunities to spend money (as is typical on such cruises), and we noticed that woo-woo was a prominent feature of their wares. Acupuncture “treatments” and even instruction in that variety of quackery, were offered to the naïve, and these were the cures offered:
Addictions, allergies, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, bone pain, cancer pain, chronic fatigue, colds/flu, colitis, constipation, Crohn’s disease, dental pain, depression, diarrhea, dizziness, dysentery, ear infections, emotional distress, fatigue, fibromyalgia, gastritis, GERDs, headaches, hot flashes, IBS, incontinence, infertility, insomnia, joint pain, menopause, menstrual disorders, migraines, nausea, nerve pain, PMS, pneumonia, rhinitis, sciatica, sea sickness, shortness of breath, sinusitis, smoking cessation, sore throat, sugar cravings, tennis elbow, TMJ, tonsillitis, UTIs, vomiting, weight loss, and weight management.
No remedies for ignorance or naivety were listed.
Also, a colorful advertisement for an ugly watch was distributed to each cabin. It touted: PHILIP STEIN -- Natural Frequencies Inside! We were assured of “BETTER SLEEP, LESS STRESS, IMPROVED PERFORMANCE, and OVERALL WELL-BEING” if we wore this contraption, and we were told:
Our Natural Frequency Technology has key frequencies beneficial to life and health. Customers report benefits of better sleep, less stress, increased focus and improved overall well-being – we simply call it the Feel Good Watch.
There was not a word said about time-keeping, which I somehow feel is an important aspect when considering such a purchase. The watch-dial itself is a mixture of Roman and Arabic numerals, and very hard-to-read. In all, I see it as a clown watch. Did I say hard to read? Oh yes! Starting at the upper right, we have this sequence of both Arabic and Roman numbers: I, 2, III, 4, V, VI, VII, 8, IX, 10, XI, and XII. There are two gold discs on the back of the watch through which the magical forces are said to be supplied to the users body, and I can’t wait to get hold of one of these awful machines to look inside and see what’s on the other side. I’ll bet, folks, that there’s nothing at all connected to those two discs…
I thought I’d tell you of a frustrating experience. Back in Tampa, Florida following the cruise, I flew the short trip to Fort Lauderdale via United Airlines, only 197 miles and 75 minutes, according to the UA schedule. Now, I should tell you that I've not always been happy with UA. I've experienced a few occasions which were made much more difficult by the casual attitude with which the airline handles minor events which can become major annoyances. As one example, when I was confronted with the video display which announced the flight that would be boarded at that gate, I saw that it listed a previous flight that had already departed many hours earlier in the morning, not the one in which I hoped to participate. When I mentioned this to the attendant, she took a quick glance at the display, shrugged, and told me cheerily, "Oh, don't pay any attention to that!" I was left with the impression that the lady either didn't have the means or skill to correct the display, or simply didn't care. I opted for the latter…
In any case, I took that short trip to Fort Lauderdale, only to discover when I recovered my baggage, that my brand-new suitcase was lacking one of the four wheels on its end; the baggage-handlers had managed to break it off. I innocently assumed that the United baggage service would be responsible for this damage, so I made my way to the appropriate desk. The attendant came around to my side of the desk and I indicated where the wheel had been broken off, at which point I encountered a bit of misunderstanding resulting from professional reference terms. She shook her head and told me, "Sir, the wheels are not covered.” I countered, "Ma'am, how could the wheels function if they were covered?" "Well sir, they're not covered," she replied. I certainly couldn't argue with that, but I immediately understood her meaning when she next said, "Neither the handle nor the wheels are covered!" – somewhat testily. She meant of course that United’s obligation for redress did not apply in this situation.
I didn’t abandon my pursuit of customer service satisfaction. "There are only three parts to this piece of baggage, Ma’am, the handle, the wheels, and the body. What do you require? A bullet hole in the body?" The attendant turned away, and I was thus dismissed. I now cannot imagine what could possibly happen to any suitcase in order to bring it to a state in which it would be subject to repair or replacement by United. Now, I'll continue to seek satisfaction from Macy's, where I purchased the suitcase. No, I won't trouble you with what further transpires in this matter, but I do wish to point out to my reader that confusion can result from a simple misinterpretation of terminology. A more JREF-applicable example would be the fact that Uri Geller now no longer wishes to be referred to as a "psychic," but as a "mystifier"…
James Randi is founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation