SWIFT August 31, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

An Open Ambush, Romania in Danger, Good News, Mea Culpa – Again, A New Group, Religion Strikes Again, That Strange Delusion, More Mea Culpa, Psychics Take a Tumble, Quoting Uri, In Closing…

I′ve approached the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to talk about preparing a series of programs on their science popularization TV series – on their own channel – set up to counter the commercial channels that air only trashy “scientific” material. This series would be our means of disarming Geller′s planned show on Hungarian TV2 by exposing – in advance – the methods used to convince the audience that he has paranormal powers – a scenario which in any case is rapidly becoming less and less acceptable. And, with any luck, we′ll have that series ready to go before the Geller/Angel series on NBC-TV, and will get the videos up on the Internet just before NBC airs the series.

We′re in touch with the Communication Director of the Academy, to get this underway. Literally, stay tuned…!

Table of Contents
  1. An Open Ambush

  2. Romania in Danger

  3. Good News

  4. Mea Culpa – Again

  5. A New Group

  6. Religion Strikes Again

  7. That Strange Delusion

  8. More Mea Culpa

  9. Psychics Take a Tumble

  10. Quoting Uri

  11. In Closing…



AN OPEN AMBUSH

I′ve approached the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to talk about preparing a series of programs on their science popularization TV series – on their own channel – set up to counter the commercial channels that air only trashy “scientific” material. This series would be our means of disarming Geller′s planned show on Hungarian TV2 by exposing – in advance – the methods used to convince the audience that he has paranormal powers – a scenario which in any case is rapidly becoming less and less acceptable. And, with any luck, we′ll have that series ready to go before the Geller/Angel series on NBC-TV, and will get the videos up on the Internet just before NBC airs the series.

We′re in touch with the Communication Director of the Academy, to get this underway. Literally, stay tuned…!





ROMANIA IN DANGER

Reader Mihai Amariutei writes from his homeland:

Romania, a new EU state, seeks to be at the front of the world-wide woo-woo revolution, recognizing, regulating and financing wholesale, all alternative medicine. In a period of political turmoil, a Prof. Dr. Mircea Ifrim fast-tracked law #118/2007 through the two chambers of the Romanian Parliament.

Here are some items from this new law:

It seeks to regulate complementary/alternative medicine practice, thereby preventing sickness, promoting well-being, curing diseases and bringing about “spiritual optimization of the human being.” “Complimentary and alternative medicine” covering health practices which can be used “in addition to, or instead of classical therapies, being based on theories, beliefs and experience of different national cultures, used for prevention, diagnosis and treatment of somatic and psychic illnesses” will be embraced.

This includes “naturist, biological, nutritional, manual, bioelectromagnetic and energy fields practices and therapies.” Further complementary/alternative medicine domains may be established by order of the Minister of Health.

The new law permits any college graduate to practice complimentary/alternative medicine, subject to authorization issued pursuant to approval by the Complimentary/Alternative Practitioners Order – whatever that may mean. Practicing complimentary/alternative medicine will be permitted in medical institutions alongside classical allopathic medicine – which means that real medicine – medicine that actually works – will also be allowed alongside the quackery!

Unfortunately, these practices and procedures of alternative medicine will be paid for by the Romanian National Health Insurance Fund. Some 80 highly doubtful examples of what Romania now considers part of their medical system, are listed. Terms such as “spectroscopy” and “magnetic resonance” are also tossed in, though they don′t mean what Webster′s says they do, in these usages.

As examples, under what they term “pharmacological and biological treatments,” we find: antioxidant agents, apitherapy (applying bee stings), chelation therapy, DMSO therapy, oxidizing agents (ozone, hydrogen peroxide), and clay therapy – which might simply mean, “mud baths.”

Listed under “herbalist practices” are the use of echinacea, gingko biloba extract, ginger and ginseng root, Bach flower therapy, herbal therapy, aromatherapy, and oligotherapy (trace minerals) – much of which is either highly suspect, or downright quackery.

Under “diet, nutrition, lifestyle” are listed: lifestyle change, Gerson therapy, macrobiotics, megavitamins, dieting and fasting therapy, feng shui, stress/change management, phytotherapy (use of plant substances), and dietary supplements. “Alternative medical practice systems,” which obviously includes a raft of quack systems, lists acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, yoga, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, Anthroposophy, ayurvedic medicine, medical astrology, su jok (hand-and-foot acupuncture), and all forms of medieval Chinese medicine. “Manual therapies” are: acupressure, Alexander Technique (a movement system), chiropractic, osteopathy, the Feldenkrais method (an “awareness of movement” notion), applied kinesiology, massage therapy, reflexology, rolfing, therapeutic touch, Trager method (personal interaction between practitioner and subject), zone therapy, and “metamorphic technique.”

Under “bioelectromagnetic and energy applications” – and here we enter the spacey realm of technical quackery – we see: natural & artificial light treatments, electro acupuncture, electromagnetic fields, electric & neuromagnetic stimulation, magnetic field therapy, reiki, radiance technique, biofield therapy, bioconcepts therapy, biorhythms, crystal therapy, and color therapy. “Mind-body interaction” lists: humor therapy, art therapy, sound therapy, dance therapy, cognitive therapy, relaxation and breathing, energy practices, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, prayer therapy, spiritual healing, and holistic therapy.

A few unknown or undefined terms are: anti-neoplastons, ecological treatment, immunity-boosting therapy, metabolic therapy, algotherapy, and communication-based health practices.

Seldom do we see such a comprehensive collection of blatant flummery all in one place, and the professional quacks of Romania are, I′m sure, out shopping around for sumptuous quarters from which to dispense their nostrums. In any case, five of these practices are already accepted in the European Union: acupuncture, homeopathy, phytotherapy, acupressure and crystal therapy.

The Prof. Dr. Mircea Ifrim mentioned above boasts these qualifications: he is the chief of the Commission for Health and Family of the Chamber of deputies, a member of the Romanian Academy of Medical Science, an honorary member commander of the Academy of Science and Culture in Sao-Paulo, Brazil, ex-dean-founder of the Medical Faculty in Oradea, Romania, vice-rector of the "Vasile Goldis" University in Arad, Romania, a member of the International Diplomatic Academy, and scientific researcher in traditional oriental medicine with his wife, Dr. Ifrim-Chen Feng, engineer, member of the board of The International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine.

Well! Surely such credentials are evidence of learning and intelligence? Not a safe assumption. It all depends on where the titles come from. To steal a line from the film of L. Frank Baum′s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain…!”





GOOD NEWS

UK reader Marcus Hill writes::

Whilst it is of some concern that many MPs are supporting a motion in parliament extolling the virtues of NHS Homeopathic Hospitals (as detailed in Swift, 24/8), you may not be aware of the status of the motion in question. It′s an Early Day Motion, which basically means a statement of position or support, or merely a way of publicising an issue. It carries absolutely no legislative authority whatsoever, and it is an extremely rare case for an EDM to give rise to a Bill (which is an instrument for legislation), and even if it did, this would then have to be passed through parliament, which is a lengthy process in its own right. In short, the chances of anything significant happening before the funding ends, are vanishingly remote.

Thank you, Marcus, though it′s still discouraging to rationalists that so many politicians are so unaware of how the real world works; I think a bit of science education might serve them well…

Re homeopathy in Arizona, the suggestion has been made that state lawmakers should either just eliminate the Arizona Board of Homeopathic Medical Examiners, or make sure that it can adequately protect the public, according to a state audit. A number of problems in the way that agency handles complaints and investigates physicians, were discovered by the audit. Among them, some complaints that were made waited for up to two years before they were investigated. Some physicians found unfit by other boards were allowed to keep their homeopathic licenses, though homeopaths don′t have to show competency in some of the strange “therapies” they use.

Senator Robert Blendu, chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said that the committee was organized to protect the public, not to create a “playground to allow people who shouldn′t be practicing medicine to be practicing in Arizona.” Arizona is one of only three US states with a separate regulatory board just for homeopathic physicians.

Amazingly, under Arizona law, homeopaths are required to be licensed in either regular medicine or osteopathy, but are allowed to let those medical licenses lapse and still work as homeopaths! And, as homeopaths, they also can practice more invasive therapies, prescribe drugs, and perform minor surgery, despite having lapsed licenses!

Kathleen Fry, of Scottsdale, Arizona – both a gynecologist and a homeopath – said she believes that homeopathy is more of a “spiritual” practice and shouldn′t be regulated. Sounds like more of the ever-popular “faith-based initiative” crapiola, to me.





MEA CULPA – AGAIN

Reader Marco Scheurer, in Lausanne, Switzerland, remarks – quite correctly – about a comment made recently in SWIFT, one that is quite incorrect:

I watched the video of your talk at Google with pleasure, but I was a bit surprised by your reference to Switzerland. Is really a disproportionate amount of woo-woo things coming from home?

Hahnemann was not Swiss but German, and I don′t think he ever lived in Switzerland. And even if he did, given the state of medicine at the time, late 18th - early 19th centuries, when blood-letting was a cure, his idea was wrong but worth a try, not that far from contemporary Jenner′s [valid] discovery of vaccination. Avogadro′s Law was published in 1811, though the value of Avogadro′s Number was only estimated much later, in 1865.

I′ve been looking for the date when double-blind testing was invented. It looks like it wasn′t available to Hahnemann at the time, but that it was invented in 1835...to debunk homeopathy! From tinyurl.com/2dfwpv:

The organizers concluded that the symptoms or changes which the homeopaths claimed to observe as an effect of their medicines were the fruit of imagination, self-deception and preconceived opinion – if not fraud.

Homeopathy gave us randomized double-blind testing: how sweet!

Only 170 years later (2005) the Swiss government removed homeopathy and other quack medicines from the list of treatments covered in mandatory health insurance (all were provisionally included in 1999). Only acupuncture remains listed. Progress! Here in Switzerland!

Marco, I′m now hard put to explain where I got the strange notion that Hahnemann was Swiss, and for years I′ve been blaming you folks for this invasion of rationality called homeopathy! I have good friends in Switzerland who have never alerted me to my error, surprisingly. And now that you point out the fact that homeopathy and other quack medical notions have been stricken from the list of treatments covered by the mandatory health insurance services in your country, I′m thoroughly chastised and embarrassed…

Sorry, Switzerland…





A NEW GROUP

Our friend Linda Rosa alerts us: for any of you Coloradoans, there is a delightful new skeptics group with 141 members – and growing – which can be seen at: skeptics.meetup.com/131/?gj=sj5. And, there are other "Skeptic Meetup" groups starting up around the country, too. See skeptics.meetup.com/ for new groups in Atlanta, Chicago, New Jersey, Vancouver, and other cities. Join up and feel the strength of association with like-minded thinkers!

It′s great to see these new movements in skepticism.





RELIGION STRIKES AGAIN

Kile Baker, Program Director of Magnetospheric Physics, at the National Science Foundation, writes:

Here′s a wonderful example of the great benefits that religion provides to all of us – from today′s (Aug. 27) Washington Post. Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, suffered from a severe anxiety disorder known as "selective mutism." While he was in high school, the Fairfax school system provided him with a special education plan to help him, but that came to an end when he went to college. Said the Post:

As recently as last summer, Cho′s mother had sought out members of One Mind Church in Woodbridge (VA) to purge him of what the pastor there called the “demonic power” possessing him.

That really worked well, didn′t it? I think the victims of the shooting should sue that church and the pastor. Maybe a little accountability would help.





THAT STRANGE DELUSION

Reader Aaron J. Welch writes:

I have been a reader of your column for a few years now and look forward to it every Monday while living in the former Soviet Union. If you deem it interesting enough for other SWIFT readers, I would like to talk about Sleep Paralysis and about how very real a frightening it can feel.

Recently I had what I hope is my only experience with this problem that afflicts people. I had fallen asleep awkwardly on the couch and was having a rather odd dream about someone claiming to have videotape proof of the existence of ghosts, about which I was of course skeptical. As dreams do, it twisted oddly that I was back in my apartment with a ghostly presence making its way through my body. At this point I was awakened slightly, but was still in that realm between sleep and wakefulness. This is when I noticed that I could not move at all, even though I thought that I was attempting to so. Still in this in-between state, my mind took me to the alien abduction stories that have become commonplace, though not being located in rural Alabama, I′m not sure what Aliens would want from me. At this point I believed that I was trying desperately to move or even just to open my eyes, which I could not do.

As I came more towards wakefulness, I still had the feeling that there was a presence inside the apartment, and my thoughts turned to burglars and to sleep paralysis. Wrenching myself awake and finally being able to open my eyes, I was then able to move.

Even though this sequence most likely took less than time to occur than to write about it, it was nonetheless a jarring experience. The fear was indeed real from feeling of a presence, first invading my body in the form of a malevolent ghostly manifestation, then becoming something more tangible in my apartment such as an extraterrestrial or a burglar.

Now I can better understand those who refuse to accept more rational explanations such as sleep paralysis. In fact, I tend to think that realizing that I was going though the sleep paralysis aided my waking up more quickly and brought me back to reality. Until this happened to me, I could not understand how real and terrifying this problem could be.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and keep up the much needed action for the rational.





MORE MEA CULPA

Reader Dr. David Dreyfuss takes me on about a subject I′ve been belaboring for some years now…

I just wanted to comment on your remarks posted on your website from about 7 years ago at randi.org/jr/03-22-2000.html. It came to my attention because of renewed publicity activity by Joseph Newman. I don′t know a lot about what he′s really doing, but your discussion of his work seems more informative than most. I am, in fact, a long-time admirer of your work dating back some 25 years or more to when I lived near you in New Jersey.

But I do take issue with your criticism of the US Patent Office. As an established scientist and inventor, I have quite a number of issued patents and have also recently become a patent agent myself. I and my fellow inventors, agents and attorneys have plenty of criticisms of the Patent Office, particularly right now with respect to some recently-announced rule changes, but I still think it is not correct for you to criticize them for issuing a patent on yet another impossible invention. It is important to understand what the role of the Patent Office is in evaluating applications and issuing patents. It is most emphatically not to certify the scientific correctness of any statements in an application, nor is it to certify the commercial viability of new inventions. There is absolutely no peer review process or testing of the functioning of inventions during examination of applications. It is purely a registration process that gives a patentee the right to exclude others from practicing his invention. The Patent Office declares this right by issuing a patent if an applicant can demonstrate (1) novelty and non-obviousness (this latter in a particular legally-defined sense), (2) utility, and (3) enablement. Enablement need not involve actual reduction to practice. It is sufficient to describe an invention in a way that a "person of ordinary skill in the art" could build and practice the invention. Enablement testing by the Patent Office examiners rarely involves viewing of working hardware; indeed many applications are filed before the inventor raises enough money to build his first prototype. As long as the inventor describes in sufficient detail how the invention could be built, he is entitled to a patent.

Admittedly there are special rules for particularly unlikely inventions that result in such things as perpetual motion, faster-than-light travel and similar violations of generally-accepted physical laws. For these, the standards for demonstrating enablement are set higher: a working model must be shown. This is why Joseph Newman was unable to obtain a patent. You could argue that the faster-than-light communications and accelerated plant growth device you mention should similarly have been rejected without a true working model, but apparently the explanation of how it might work convinced an examiner that it was plausible enough to let it through. But I wouldn′t be too hard on the Patent Office for doing so. The inventor paid for the examination; the Patent Office actually runs at a net profit to the government, and your tax dollars are not being wasted by such applications. It is the inventor′s time and money that are being wasted, since there is little point in obtaining a patent on a useless invention. Who cares whether he can exclude others from using his invention? No one is going to profit from it anyway. I suppose many inventors use issued patents as if they represented some sort of stamp of approval for marketing purposes, but anyone who understands the real purpose of patents should not be taken in by such advertising claims.

I must say that my major objection to the actions of the USPTO has always been that their occasional acceptance of rather silly and frivolous claims, tends to lend validity to these claims; those who see a patent number attached to an advertisement will probably – very erroneously – assume that the claim has passed muster at the USPTO – a federal agency of the US government! – and thus should be legitimate. Naïve investors often just need a hint of legitimacy to convince them, and such connection might do just that. Life savings invested in spurious schemes such as dowsing devices and magnetic healing gimmicks constitutes a very popular and lucrative racket.

I thank Dr. Dreyfuss for this clarification, and I want it noted that neither he nor I employed the phrase, “J′accuse!” at any point… Well, until now…





PSYCHICS TAKE A TUMBLE

Reader Gareth Haman writes:

I′m a first-time e-mailer but a long-time admirer of your debunking work and I thought you might be interested in something I found very amusing. Here in the UK we have a TV show called "Test the Nation," which is a lighthearted live national IQ test that viewers can participate in, online. For added interest, the program also features groups made up of members of various professions (about 30 or so people in each group) in the studio audience, who also take part in the IQ test live. The most recent program featured – among others – a group of clairvoyants, who of course you′d expect to do very well, given their abilities and the fact that the composer of the test was also in the studio, so they could easily have read his mind, perhaps?

At the end of the show, the scores were announced – and to their amazement (but I suspect not that of many others), the clairvoyant group came dead last out of all the professions featured, namely removals men [movers], surgeons and ex-reality TV show participants, in this case. But all was not yet lost, as one of the clairvoyants had also made a prediction that the top individual IQ for the night would come from a male member of the surgeon group. Quite an educated guess anyway, you might think, given that surgeons tend to be smart and the group was mainly male, so surely that would give them something to crow about when they were right? Well, alas, no – the top score came from one of the reality TV stars. So not only could their abilities not steer them to the correct answers for themselves, they couldn′t even tell who would be the best from the people around them.

As to the fact that they had – on average – the lowest average IQ of the groups on that night, well I think to comment on that would just be putting the boot in [booting them out]!

Keep up the good work!





QUOTING URI

In a video clip taken from a film some years back, we see Uri Geller earnestly assuring an interviewer:

I′m not a person that does things with sleight of hand. I′m not a person that uses mirrors, and so on. Magic today is pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I′m not a magician. The things I do are real, and true.

We have to wonder if Mr. Geller would have a different statement to give, today. Or – perhaps – he might actually think that he has miraculous powers…!

Naaaah! He′s too smart for that…





IN CLOSING

Elsewhere here in SWIFT you′ll see the sad news that Jerry Andrus, who so many of us got to know and love, has died. That was a heavy blow, followed two days later by the death of another of my friends, Paul B. MacCready, Jr., the famous designer of lightweight human-powered and then solar-powered aircraft such as the Gossamer Condor. Paul also built a motor-powered pterodactyl that flew around the Washington Monument in 1986. He was 82 years old.

Goodbye, gentlemen.

My giants are leaving…