Reading, Writing, and Conjuring? by Phil Plait
Richard Wiseman is a psychology professor at Hertfordshire (UK) University and a dear friend of the JREF. He's also fascinated by the little quirks and weird things that happen in everyday life, and has made it his goal to study them. One such study, featured in the newspaper The Daily Mail (link: dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1054671), was to see how learning -- and performing -- magic tricks affected children's ability to learn in school.
What won't come as a surprise to Swift-reading prestidigitators is that students who learned the magic lessons tended to have boosted confidence and sociability over their classmates who took the standard lessons in Personal Health and Social Education. As Professor Wiseman said, "Learning magic requires self-discipline, an understanding of how other people think and an ability to entertain. Also, unlike playing computer games, it encourages children to interact with their friends and family." Moreover, shy students got the most benefit out of performing the tricks.
So doing the odd magic trick or two makes one more confident, better able to deal with others, and boosts self-esteem, making the performer better able to work well in front of a crowd.
Hmmm, that sounds familiar... there must be *someone* we know who fits that bill. Someone Amazing. Think hard, it'll come to you.
We're also sure that readers of Swift will enjoy reading more of Professor Wiseman's quirky adventures in his book titled -- what else? -- Quirkology. We highly recommend it!
“SKEPTIC” REVISITED by Jeff Wagg
Last week, I commented that the adjective “skeptic” was coveted by folks on both sides of belief debates. This past weekend, I gathered more evidence to support my claim. I attended a convention of paranormal enthusiasts that featured lectures by psychics, ghosthunters, and assorted folks who commune with the dead. This was NOT The Amaz!ng Meeting.
However, I found that in my informal one-on-one discussions with attendees, nearly all of them referred to themselves as skeptics. They would then go on to present evidence for why they believed in ghosts, or life after death, or whatever the topic was. My sense was that they were honest people who had seen or experienced things that had convinced them. I also believe that they worked very hard to reenforce those beliefs, a topic I’ll be writing on soon.
Tim Farley, who was a paper presenter at TAM 6, sent the following:
I've noticed the same thing that you pointed out in SWIFT. Here are some other data points where non-skeptics (using our definition) grab the word skeptic in part because it adds credibility:
Rupert Sheldrake and Gary Schwartz and others have a website called "Skeptical Investigations: www.skepticalinvestigations.org/home.htm
(If you try to go to the root of that site, it redirects to sheldrake.org. This site is the one that published Michael Prescott's slam of Randi: www.skepticalinvestigations.org/exam/Prescott_Randi.htm).
There's a blogger/podcaster named Alex Tsakiris who uses the site name SKEPTIKO, despite the fact that he's very credulous of paranormal claims: http://www.skeptiko.com
(Not to be confused with a GOOD skeptical blog called SKEPTICO http://skeptico.blogs.com, run by a JREF forumite "RichardR". SKEPTIKO, on the other hand, has appeared on Skeptic's Guide and has been roundly trounced in a debate there).
The global warming deniers absolutely LOVE the word "skeptic," and they have two sites at least: http://www.climate-skeptic.com and and those who do not http://www.skepticsglobalwarming.com
This site seems to be run by Shroud of Turin believers, but check out the name: http://www.skepticalspectacle.com
Those are just a few I was able to drum up out of my "list of woo websites" that I've been working on. --Tim Farley http://whatstheharm.net
Other readers wrote to me worried that there will be a dilution of the term “skeptic.” In truth, the word has always been problematic, as the media and others use the word interchangeably with “cynic” and “naysayer.” We will probably never own the word.
So what’s to be done? I say: nothing. We should keep in mind that the efforts of the JREF and other skeptical organizations are having an impact, and those who do not anchor themselves in reality have noticed this. Personally, I see it as encouragement that we should stay on the path we’ve been on all along.
MORE OGILVIE by James Randi
We mentioned at tinyurl.com/3fwbb9 that a JREF test of “psychic” Derek Ogilvie was coming up on UK TV, an event about which the Radio Times [RT] published this:
Extraordinary People: the Million Dollar Mind Reader
You may remember a dubious series from 2006 called The Baby Mind Reader. It featured a glib “psychic supernannv" called Derek Ogilvie, who claimed to understand toddlers via telepathy.
Only four episodes of The Baby Mind Reader were ever made, but now Derek's back and in this intriguing documentary he undergoes scientific tests, hoping to prove that his powers are real and he’s not just, consciously or unconsciously, using other methods (see the Inside Story, below).
You have to admire Derek's willingness to submit to stringent experiments in London and Miami (on the latter, under the venerable James Randi) to prove, as he wails tearfully on camera, “I’m not a liar!"
But that's about all you have to admire about him. The programme affects to keep an open mind about his powers – and if he convinces James Randi, he’ll win a million dollars. I’ve written previously in RT that Derek is, in my view, "about as psychic as my stapler,” but I’d hate to spoil the outcome of the programme, so I'll leave you to guess whether he wins the money and shames my stapler.
The “Inside Story” referred to above has a photo of noted UK skeptic Dr. Chris French of Goldsmiths College, University of London, who they quote:
“There's no doubt people have weird experiences; the question is how we explain them," says psychology professor Chris French, who tests The Million Dollar Mind Reader. So how does the programme's subject, Derek Ogilvie, read babies’ minds? “He converses with their parents and uses a technique called “cold reading,” although he may not realize that,” says French. "I'm quite sure this programme won't dent his popularity. Psychics bounce back. It's about belief. And, as I say, I'm sure many genuinely believe they have a gift."
Chris French is, as usual, more charitable than I…
THE HENNING SAGA by James Randi
Larry Thornton, a professional magician residing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, forwards to us the following article, which was sent to him by a magician friend:
The Deception of a Magician
(Message from a review by Joel A. Moskowitz M.D)
It has been but only eight years since the magician who is attributed with having given a face lift to magic, stimulating renewed interest in conjuring and whose fame soared to heights exceeding prior levitations, vanished. The name Doug Henning is seldom mentioned these days.
What happened? This Canadian illusionist rejected the stereotype of the top-hatted tuxedo-wearing mystifier. His hair was long, smile effervescent, clothes casual and flamboyant and he flitted about the stage like a butterfly creating wonder and receiving awards.
Martin Gardner, science genius and enthusiastic magic hobbyist, addresses the self-deception and ultimate disappearance of Henning in a chapter of his "Weird Water and Fuzzy Logic," published by Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York. Among extraordinary subjects e.g. “Eyeless Vision and God” and “Klingon and other Artificial Languages” – sixteen essays originally published in Skeptical Inquirer, is "Doug Henning and the Giggling Guru." Gardner, while listing Henning's triumphs, e.g. a magic show which ran on Broadway for four years and numerous television spectaculars and multiple other appearances, writes:
Then something happened to Doug on his way to a magic shop. He discovered TM (Transcendental Meditation) and became a pal of the founder.
By repeating the “mantra” and forking over thousands of dollars, TM promises that you will develop the ability to become invisible, see hidden things, to walk through walls, and fly through the air. Real magic – not stage stuff. Henning swallowed this. He is said to have asserted that “thinking so” would allow you to "levitate." You, having achieved a high state of consciousness, would be able to become invisible because your body "just stops reflecting light."
Henning was so imbued with the potential of TM that he abandoned his career, sold his effects to David Copperfield and others. He planned a center where the marvels would be demonstrated. This billion-dollar extravaganza would utilize extreme technology to astound visitors. He intended to include many of his magic illusion secrets. The paradox of his belief that Transcendental Meditation was valid yet his willingness to present trickery in the service of advertising TM is notable.
No source that this reviewer has consulted, implies that Henning was a charlatan. He was a believer. Sadly the health benefits attributed to TM didn't work for him – he died at age 52, in 2000, of liver cancer. This may be a testimony to the mystery of self-deception. It is generally thought that the hyper-educated such as university professors are prone to be deceived. How is it that a master of deception such as Doug Henning, fell prey to the false promise of TM
Martin Gardner is a lucid author whose topics describe world-wide irrationality. He provides the antidote: informed writing. This book is highly recommended for thinking magicians and other life forms.
Mr. Thornton responded:
Thank you for sending me for this elucidating book review. Doug's errors in judgment towards the end of his magic career must be a never-ending humiliation to his surviving relatives and close friends. And the people who keep bringing the issue up must be opening the wounds of embarrassment once again. Personally I, and likely the rest of the magic world, would prefer to remember Henning principally for his accomplishments in magic and how his delightful work re-energized our profession. What happened later is best forgotten, if for no other reason than that it may have tainted the public's general impression of magicians as not being all the astute (and thus undermining the serious work of skeptical magicians everywhere, among them James Randi, Penn & Teller, and other exposers of fraud and paranormal claptrap.)
That Doug eventually succumbed to some terribly faulty reasoning by going "off the deep end" over the Maharishi's transcendental meditation nonsense, only shows that he was human. Human beings, in spite of their amazingly unique reasoning powers that set them apart from the all other earthly creatures, are nevertheless prone to all sorts of illogical and emotional thinking. Why, there are even those who fervently believe in the literal contents of a book written thousands of years ago that tell of magical events like people created from dust and ribs, talking snakes, a burning bush that dispenses the voice of God, men who walk on water and live for hundreds of years, and all sorts of other unnatural acts. So was Henning all that different from such people who, through the centuries, have fallen for an endless variety of religious fantasies? Or is it only SECULAR nonsense and its victims that we should bring to everyone's attention? Or worse: the contemptuous condemnation of every other religion but the one the critic happens to embrace?
If instead of a blind faith in the claims of the founder of transcendental meditation, Doug had turned to religious zealotry (i.e. a belief in the extremisms of Christian fundamentalism) would we still think of him as the foolish, overly-gullible victim of a silly and utterly false cult? No, he would have been embraced by millions of religious adherents who would have likely been receptive to his going the route of Christian magician André Kole by annually working the evangelical circuit, promoting "The Message" with the help of the entertaining illusions of the conjurer's art.
But because Doug's conversion to the falsehoods of a charismatic guru from a far-off country left him open to criticism by virtually everyone (religious and otherwise), and because universal skepticism of secular nonsense is "safe to criticize", Doug earned the mantle of the fool. And yet the world abounds with "fools" every bit as gullible within the religious sphere: full of blind faith that miracles can happen (are transcendental dreams of "flying" any more ridiculous than "transcending death"?); but because organized religion is considered sacrosanct and above criticism in our society (sentiments bitterly echoed by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al), we tolerate religious idiocy far more than secular idiocy.
Such a double-standard of hypocrisy should be not be lost on anyone.
"Faith without doubt leads to moral arrogance, the eternal pratfall of the religiously convinced." - Joe Klein, Time Magazine
HAPPY DAY! by James Randi
From our friend Ben Goldacre in London comes this very welcome news:
Just to let you know, I've today emerged rather victoriously from a million-dollar libel case with a vitamin pill peddler.
He's contributed to the madness which has let huge numbers of people with AIDS in South Africa die (6 million there are HIV-positive) by taking out full page adverts advising against AIDS drugs, and peddling his vitamin pills. His right hand man introduced Thabo Mbeki to HIV denialism. Essentially this is common or garden miracle pill peddler stuff transplanted out of the west and into a context where it matters.
I pointed this out and he sued. Now he's pulled out – it's my view that he was clearly going to lose – and he's going to have to pay our one-million-dollar legal bill, which is good. See tinyurl.com/4yxkrd.
It's my view that this vile man deserves as much publicity as possible. It was front page of the Guardian today, with a double page spread inside, the leader and a comment piece, which is pretty good going, but anything you could do to spread the love would be greatly appreciated. He is fairly active in the US. the South African media will be going large over the next couple of days, I think.
From reader Alan Rew we received this additional notice, which contains a 9 minute+ video that I urge you to view, so that you can see the full story:
A quack pushing vitamin pills as a "cure" for HIV/AIDS has lost an expensive libel case against the UK newspaper The Guardian. See tinyurl.com/3hv3qh. The original articles were written by Ben Goldacre, custodian of the www.badscience.net website, dedicated to quack-busting and criticism of "alternative" medicine.
LOVE MOON ANION PADS by Jeff Wagg
Malaysian Swift reader Seline Chan asked us to take a look at an unusual product called the Love Moon Anion Pad (http://www.winalite.com.my/en/products_1.html). As I felt anatomically unqualified to research this product, I asked Harriet Hall, MD to weigh in. Here’s what she found:
Anion strips in sanitary napkins? Just another far-fetched marketing gimmick. The pseudoscientific claims on that website are ludicrous.
In certain types of environment (such as the mountainous area), the inhabitants are free from troubles of inflammation and generally live longer. This is obviously related to the fact that the air there contains abundant anions.
No they aren’t; no they don’t; and no it isn’t related, obviously or otherwise.
”Almost all types of female genital inflammation are caused by anaerobic bacteria.”
Oh really? What about yeast, Trichomonas, herpes, dermatitis…?
The anionic tape in ‘Love Moon’ sanitary napkin emits high density of anions, it also produces abundant ionized oxygen to fundamentally change the anaerobic environment.
Even if that were true on the sanitary pad, you wouldn’t expect it to affect anaerobes inside the vagina.
Anions “promote biological enzymic transformation and balance the acidity and alkalinity. At the same time, under normal temperature, it can emit biological magnetic wave of wavelength 4 to 14 micron at more than 90% emission rate which is beneficial to the human body as it can activate the water molecules in the cells to make them exist at high energy level suitable for synthesis of biological enzymes.” This is just meaningless blather. I was going to say “twaddle” but that would sound like I was reaching for a pun.
Other sanitary napkins supposedly facilitate the growth of “trichomonad bacteria that can destroy sperms in the vagina to cause infertility.” Umm…trichomonads aren’t bacteria; they’re protozoans. They don’t destroy sperm although they may reduce sperm motility.
Winalite includes a patented vaginitis self-test card. If they can diagnose vaginitis that way, medical science would love to know about it.
Other websites claim this product can reduce fatigue, improve immunity, improve blood flow, and repair the womb. All the claims are pure fantasy; the product hasn’t even been tested.
What does science say about negative ions and health?
According to Wikipedia (not my favorite source, but they got it right this time): “Negative air ionization can reduce the concentration of bioaerosols and dust particles in the air by causing them to bond, forming larger particles and thus falling out of the air. This may help reduce infection due to airborne contamination” – in chickens. Ionization reduced transmission of Newcastle Disease virus when the ionizer was placed between the upwind and downwind chickens.
Otherwise, science has not found any particular benefit from a greater concentration of negative ions in the air, much less on sanitary pads in the crotch. According to Mr. Static, “…the negative-ion myth and the ion-balance myth are nothing but that, myths.” www.ce-mag.com/archive/02/11/mrstatic.html.
There is usually a grain of truth behind claims like these: tampons do increase the risk of toxic shock syndrome (TSS) although sanitary pads don’t. If Winalite can prove these anion strips improve health, I’ll eat one.
Harriet Hall, MD
In doing a little bit of research on this product, I encountered a blog by one Orange Pixie Girl (orangepixiegirl.blogspot.com/2007/04/love-moon-anion-sanitary-napkin.html) who noted that the instructional materials for this product include the following:
Inside the c*nt, anion can promote the exchange of biological enzyme; enhance material with acid to uplift self-curing and immunity for human body.
I’ll have you know that the asterisk was mine. I don’t even know where to put the [sic] for that statement.
SYLVIA’S LATEST FARCE by James Randi
Every now and then, Sylvia Browne surpasses even her own very wide limits of presumption. You lucky person, you can now see a shamelessly gushing ad for her latest book. Since I’m confident that no SWIFT reader is going to invest $23 in this item, I send you to tinyurl.com/6c5bbh and urge you to read the entire text, to see how The Talons has implied that she is one with “Mother Teresa, Mahatma Ghandi [sic], Madame Curie, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and Nelson Mandela” – as
…someone who's on a direct mission from God, almost like God's spokesperson on Earth, who brings hope to a war-torn world… [one of those] who dedicate their lives to crusade for peace, justice, love, and the greater good.
I’m checking my teeth for decay from exposure to this sugary attack…! In the company of Shakespeare and Anne Frank…? Sheeesh! Hobnobbing with Charles Ponzi and L. Ron Hubbard, is more likely…
These three paragraphs from “Mystical Traveler” serve to illustrate that Sylvia’s writers have maintained their standards of delivering unadulterated pap to the naïve:
…by the time an individual soul has incarnated for the last time, he or she has been shown the need for great spiritual advancement over and over again. Second, the final existence is the last opportunity to become a mystical traveler in a realm other than the Other Side. And third, by the time a soul is done incarnating, a great deal of wisdom has been accumulated. Part of that wisdom is the knowledge that our Creators love us all unconditionally and would never ask us to do any more than we've already decided to do, nor would They ever give us more than we can handle.
Even though they're on their last lives here on this planet, mystical travelers will at any time be asked to go elsewhere in the galaxy to right wrongs. According to Francine [Sylvia’s own personal ghost guide], other worlds don't have the illnesses, wars, and chaos that Earth does, so at least it's some consolation that those of us who have taken on the mantle won't have to reside on any planet that has the insanity that this one does.
In addition, mystical travelers become imbued with healing abilities, whether it's through words or the laying on of hands. Since they've given up their will to Mother and Father God, Their grace comes right through such individuals to whomever they wish to heal or help.
IN CONCLUSION... by Jeff Wagg
We’ve been very busy at the JREF with meetings and the like. Folks, things are looking good. Swift will be gradually changing to a new, more web savvy format, and we’re hoping to have an impressive array of writers join us. Randi is hard at work on his upcoming books, and so far.. no hurricanes have obliterated Fort Lauderdale.
The JREF has more opportunities now than ever, and we intend to take advantage of them. And while there’s no question that the JREF staff works hard, I’m going to take some time to here to point out how rich we are in quality volunteers: we are very very rich. I’ll mention a few here.
Our forum moderators and admins work tirelessly to keep the forum (forums.randi.org) a safe and fun place for all. The entire JREF community owes them a debt of gratitude, for without them, there would be no forum at all. Thank you guys. I know it’s often a thankless job, but you always have our gratitude.
Our thanks also to Paul Hoffmaster, who is spending time painting our building in Fort Lauderdale. Thank you Paul, for saving the JREF money and keeping the building looking its best.
Also, we have to recognize Amy, who is moving to Oregon to further her education. Amy was a tireless volunteer at the JREF, and she will be greatly missed.
Again, these are just a few of the folks who help keep the JREF going. One of the things we’ve discussed recently is formalizing our volunteer program. If you’re interested in helping the JREF, watch this space for information on how you can apply. And thank you in advance.