SWIFT September 7, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Dubious Help, Dubious Education, Dubious Cures, Is No Silly Idea Sacred?, New Website, The Angel/Horse Communicators, Super Silly, COS Designated as Criminal, Mysteries of the Soul, and In Closing…

Reader Nate Caraor writes:

I thought you might be interested in learning about the Penn State Paranormal Research Society (PRS), a student organization to be found at www.pennstateprs.com. I was unaware of this group until I learned that a TV show called “PARANORMAL STATE” will soon be airing on A&E, centered around them and their highly promoted leader Ryan Buell. The PRS lists among its services:

Table of Contents
  1. Dubious Help

  2. Dubious Education

  3. Dubious Cures

  4. Is No Silly Idea Sacred?

  5. New Website

  6. The Angel/Horse Communicators

  7. Super Silly

  8. COS Designated as Criminal

  9. Mysteries of the Soul

  10. In Closing…




DUBIOUS HELP

Reader Nate Caraor writes:

I thought you might be interested in learning about the Penn State Paranormal Research Society (PRS), a student organization to be found at www.pennstateprs.com. I was unaware of this group until I learned that a TV show called “PARANORMAL STATE” will soon be airing on A&E, centered around them and their highly promoted leader Ryan Buell. The PRS lists among its services:

Whether it’s living in a haunted house, developing psychic abilities, being tormented by the occult, or any other bizarre phenomena, PRS is here to help in any way it can.

The club clearly believes in the existence of these things and unfortunately portrays a public service image, which is an effective method to give legitimacy to their actions. Our campus newspaper has covered them extensively, and all of it in a positive light.

I'd say that Penn State could benefit from you giving another talk here!

Nate, it’s no surprise that a TV network is launching yet another series supporting woo-woo. It’s just rather disappointing that A&E – a widely-watched venue – has once more suspended any attempt at discriminating between fiction and fact. It’s clear that they will accept any amateur nonsense for broadcast, and that the good name and reputation of Penn State is being brought in to lend unintended authority to the project…





DUBIOUS EDUCATION

An anonymous SWIFT reader, describing himself as an “employee of a Fortune 100 corporation, dealing in a high technology field, as well as a member of a professional union,” writes:

The union and the company have established a “partnership” to provide educational and career opportunities to the union members. This normally consists of professional seminars, opportunities to attend trade organization gatherings, and the like.

But the other day we got a notice of an opportunity to participate in these two “Book Club” gems:

“The Art of Happiness at Work” by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Attitude and a sense of meaning are the keys to happiness at work, the exiled Tibetan leader tells psychiatrist Cutler in the course of conversations that took place over several years.

and

“The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles” by Dr. Bruce Lipton. Dr. Lipton’s profoundly hopeful synthesis of the latest and best research in cell biology and quantum physics is being hailed as a major breakthrough showing that our bodies can be changed as we retrain our thinking.

The first one may be innocuous enough, although getting work advice from someone who has never held anything resembling a normal job, seems a bit odd. The second really set off my woo-woo meter – unfortunately just about anything mentioning ”quantum physics“ these days is guaranteed to be nonsense. I’ve not researched Dr. Lipton in any depth, but a quick Google indicates he’s into all sorts of flummery. I may actually log into the course just to see how ridiculous this really is.

Obviously, an unfortunate and naïve choice by a union employee who knows more about what books are best-sellers than what their content conveys in the way of truth and/or useful information…





DUBIOUS CURES

Reader Dr. Terry Polevoy, MD, of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, writes:

The State of New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die.” My guess is that if you have a terminal illness in some hospitals in that State, you would be happier dying than in other neighboring States because of the wonderful selection of alternative methods in use there.

This puff piece by reporter Amy Kane is a fine example of the ignorance demonstrated by hospital administrators when they allow such rubbish into their hallowed halls. Maybe there’s more than just ivy hanging around New Hampshire, but I don’t think that kudzu has reached that far north.

Maybe it depends on which way the wind is blowing, or how much fairy dust is in the air, too.

Dr. Polevoy sends us to tinyurl.com/3b6mv5, where we see the 2,400-word article by Kane to which he refers. It begins:

The power of mind over biology is a mystery that science has just begun to understand, but healers from the Eastern world did not wait for science to break the mind-body code. Elaborate systems of curing and preventing disease have been developed by trial and error, and applied by faith in an invisible energy called “qi.”

It was almost like magic.

When a pregnant April Henry of Newmarket learned her baby was breech at 37 weeks, she decided to try it – a small incense cone of mugwort set alight and burned hot and close to the nail of her right pinky toe.

“She [the acupuncturist] said, if we can open up that channel it will allow the baby to move,” says Henry. It sounded a little weird but as a labor and delivery nurse preparing to give birth to her second child she wanted to avoid a difficult breech delivery or C-section.

Netta Hart, the Stratham acupuncturist administering the moxibustion – so named for the herb moxa, or mugwort – told April that the energy was blocked in her pelvis.

The text that followed in the article freely invoked “quantum principles,” and “string theory,” to inject a scientific flavor, then droned on about the benefits of acupuncture, aromatherapy, chi, chiropractic, energy fields, guided imagery, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, moxibustion, odic force, orgone, polarity, prana, prayer shawls, reiki, and Therapeutic Touch, while carefully warning against the use of tarot cards, stones, magnets, and crystals, which were designated as undependable. Duh…

Ms. Kane’s article explained, in one of the more naïve assertions found there:

How acupuncture works has not been fully explained within the framework of Western medicine.

True, Amy, but more fundamental to the discussion is the fact that acupuncture has not been shown to work at all, as a therapy, or within any framework, but only as a palliative measure that does not rid the body of bacteria, viruses, threatening growths, or tissue damage – where by far most of the illnesses reside that afflict us…

(The cruise ship Celebrity Infinity, aboard which I and 90+ JREF are enjoying the sights of Alaska as I prepare this SWIFT entry, constantly promotes via newsletters and on their closed-circuit TV channel, an acupuncture clinic service, advertised as

An opportunity to recover balance/harmony between the physical, emotional and spiritual you. You’ll leave behind anxiety and stress while surrendering to a healing and rejuvenating state of relaxation.

Umm, I certainly would experience a very heightened state of anxiety and stress if the resident quack-in-charge were to stick magic needles into my body. What an insult to my common sense.

Otherwise, the crew and personnel of this fine ship appear to be reasonably sober and smart…)





IS NO SILLY IDEA SACRED?

Apparently not. As we know, the new international anti-terrorist flying restrictions now dictate that no bottles containing more than 100 ml. of liquid are allowed on board flights unless checked in baggage. While the passengers on board the Vatican’s new air service, on its first flight to the shrine at Lourdes, may have been devout pilgrims in search of spiritual healing and consolation, they found that they still had to obey the rules, after several of them had their holy water confiscated by airport security when they returned. The Boeing 737 – appropriately painted in yellow-and-white papal colors – took off last week carrying 148 pilgrims reclining on headrests decorated with the message, “I search for your face, oh Lord,” and had an event-free trip to Lourdes, but when it commenced its return trip to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the anti-terror rules were strictly applied by the French police, who forced passengers to give up the holy water they had just collected at the shrine. Many had hoped to carry the water back to sick relatives.

Dozens of plastic containers – in the shape of a Madonna figure – were left at the security station, but one man decided to quickly drink all of his. Some shocked passengers asked the police how they could be callous enough to throw away the miraculous water, which is so valued that one French website – lourdes-water.org – gets £64 [US$128] for one liter.

The interesting history behind all this pious fuss, is that the water from the spring was never “officially” designated as having any healing powers. Local business opportunists came up with that gimmick, despite the fact that the H2O contains some interesting and terrible waste products from the bodies of the faithful who bathe in it. Any miracle that might be attributed to the water, would lie in the fact that major epidemics have not resulted from the distribution of the product around the world…





NEW WEBSITE

Dedicated to undoing decades of misinformation and stupidity about archaeology, the website to be found at BadArchaeology.net was built by two ordinary archaeologists – Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser – using a potent combination of humor, wit, and scientific rigor. The regularly-updated website joins ranks with the likes of badscience.net, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the war on error, casting light on a past which others seek to shroud in mystery. Subjects as diverse as evolution, Atlantis and “ley lines” are given the critical eye treatment, in an attempt to educate and amuse.

According to their press release:

Superstition, ignorance and blatant falsehood have gone unchallenged in the popular media. People continue to make small fortunes by peddling unsupported claims about a non-existent human past. Badarchaeology.net says, “Enough!”

For further information, contact: james@badarchaeology.co.uk or j.doeser@ucl.ac.uk.




THE ANGEL/HORSE COMMUNICATORS

Referring to the recent fuss about talking to angels and horses in Norway, a reader comments

I just have some thoughts on the case with the angel-sighting Princess Märtha Louise of Norway. OK, she is not among the brightest people in this country, and she has probably had a bad influence by her mother-in-law, who is a fully fledged woo-woo “rosen-therapist.” No less. You probably know of the so-called Rosen method. Just another kind of alternative nonsense, based on DIY dilettante philosophy bullshit, I guess.

The princess and her arty-farty dandy husband actually called themselves “fountains of light” in a widely ridiculed book they published some years back, so I guess we should have seen this esoteric angel-and-horse-communicating stuff coming.

The princess claims (as you refer in your commentary) that she would have been burned at the stake if she’d lived some hundred years back. No, she wouldn’t. If she claimed sightings of angels at that time, she would probably have been considered blessed and privileged. The official Norwegian protestant State-Church believes in angels, so why is the confused angel-stupidity of the princess such a big deal? I do not know. I especially find it both ironic and ridiculous, seeing people who think of themselves as Christians, laugh at the princess’ angel beliefs.

We as atheists, on the other hand, can laugh all we want, even though the case of grownup people still believing in angels and demons in 2007, really just makes me sad.

Keep up your brilliant work





SUPER SILLY

Some things are just simply silly. No other adjective can appropriately describe the procedure carried out last Sunday by state-run Nepal Airlines in front of one of their aircraft, a Boeing 757, when it developed mechanical problems. An airlines spokesman has confirmed that they sacrificed two goats to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu god of sky protection, the animals being slaughtered in front of the plane at Kathmandu airport.

As proof of the validity of the action, senior airline official Raju KC said that after Sunday’s ceremony, the plane successfully completed a flight to Hong Kong. Surely the evidence speaks…

Remind me not to fly Nepal Airlines…





COS DESIGNATED AS CRIMINAL

Reader Amy Differ, of Elk Grove, California, reports that, concluding a 10-year investigation, a Belgian prosecutor has recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology (COS) should stand trial for fraud and extortion, and that the group should be labeled a “criminal organization.” Says Amy:

What gets me is that according to this article:

Belgium, Germany and other European countries have been criticized by the State Department for labeling Scientology as a cult or sect and enacting laws to restrict its operations.

Criticized – when they should be praised for protecting vulnerable people from being manipulated, extorted and intimidated. If only our government would draw the same line and recognize the difference between religious freedom and freedom to commit scams under the cover of religious trappings. Oh, but at least they do protect our tax dollars, since the US has prosecuted the Church of Scientology for tax evasion.





MYSTERIES OF THE SOUL

Reader “Jordan” writes:

I’m a freelance sound man and this past week I filled in for a few days on a PBS documentary about “Mysteries of the Soul.” In the past few months I have enjoyed reading your website and commentaries, and finding videos of you on YouTube. I’ve spread the absurdities of Sylvia Browne and the like to my friends, who now share the hilarious and tragic videos of her failing on Montel Williams with others.

Yesterday I had the “privilege” to work on the part of the documentary that focused on a particular psychic medium who resides in Boston. He was interviewed about his powers, and then we filmed a reading between him and an older woman, a lovely and poor woman who has had many tragic losses in her life. She wished to connect to many lost friends and relatives, especially her son (who died when he was 3) and her aunt.

I could not believe how ridiculous the reading was.

The man claimed that what he was doing was VERY different from "cold reading,” and he actually seemed to shun the idea of cold reading. He preferred that the participant remain quiet until the very end, as he went on and on telling her what he saw and the messages the spirits wanted him to convey to her. While this was “different” from cold reading, what I witnessed was the same thing, with just slightly different rules. In plain English, he got almost everything wrong! Some examples:

Medium: Your dad wasn’t very religious…
Participant: Yes, he was.

Medium: I’m seeing a woman named Florence, or wearing some sort of flower dress.
Participant: Umm...no, can’t think of anything.

Medium: Your dad was a military man, or a navy man. I’m seeing him near water.
Participant: No...no, he wasn’t. My brother was in the military.
Medium: Ah, perhaps that’s who I’m seeing.

Medium: Your dad didn’t travel, he liked to stay in one spot.
Participant: No, no...he traveled everywhere.

Etc, etc, etc.

This went on and on. A few things were right, but nothing remarkable. In one weird instance, the medium mentioned a disabled or mentally handicapped man who used to pass by her house when she was little and wave to her. The participant could recollect this, but didn’t place much importance on it. My reasoning is that almost every block has some sort of disabled or handicapped person, and they usually walk by your house on occasion. I, too, could relate my own situation with this.

The biggest blunder is that he did not mention her son. That’s who she was dying to get in touch with, and it did not come up in the slightest. He kept pushing for “older men,” a father, an uncle, etc. He did get to her aunt at one point, but only through a series of bumps and missteps, such as he first mentioned her grandmother, her mom, then her aunt.

One specific "hit" was he mentioned that her aunt was telling her ”do not wash the skillet she gave you.“ The woman said this was true, her aunt gave her a very big frying pan and taught her never to wash it. However this is an older woman who lives at home, was making tea for everybody, etc. The medium had a look at her kitchen, and I don’t think it’s too big of a stretch to come to such a conclusion. And besides, if it was wrong, it would have been added to the pile of ”misses" and no one would give it any more attention.

He would say ”you have a lot of spirits you want to get in touch with." This seemed to impress the woman, but anybody of that age has had several passings in the family. Four grandparents? Aunts? Uncles? Friends? Anybody older than 60 knows many people who have passed on. He also mostly mentioned clichés, like ”your father had a locket or a pocket watch that he wanted you to have, or that you have in your house." The woman knew of no such thing. He told her to start looking for it. What a waste of time that will be!

The most ridiculous thing was this: There were family photos on a table facing the medium! He was looking right at them. There it was, her whole family history, right in front of him!

After this was all done, we interviewed the woman. To my dismay, she seemed impressed enough to ”believe he was really seeing spirits." I can’t imagine how. She mentioned being disappointed, but still having faith that something paranormal really happened. This was a wonderful, intelligent, passionate, funny woman. I thought she would have seen through all of this. But from my point of view, it was wrong guess after wrong guess, and the right guesses were unremarkable and vague.

I was convinced he was a con man. But then in the second part of the day, we shot footage at a Masonic church of a class that he teaches. It was a big circle of mostly older women, and they all went around and described spirits they were seeing (i.e. ”I’m seeing a short man, with black shoes. He’s has a thin silver necklace...and I’m seeing a train, like he’s on a train" etc, etc.) They all seemed to believe in what they were seeing, and nobody was being conned. It was a private class that we were observing, and they were all very passionate about this.

Because of this I could not tell if he was a con or if he really believed in what he was doing. During the class, several of the women started talking to our cameraman and production assistant about spirits who were trying to reach them. Again, it was all misses. Nobody in our crew knew specifically what these spirits might have been referring to, except by making big leaps and re-arranging facts.

One of them even went so far as to claim that the batteries in my lavalier microphones were dying because of spirit energy. Actually they were dying because double AA’s die fast in lavalier mikes; it happens on every shoot I do!

The older women all closed their eyes and saw images. I can do this myself. I used to do this as a little kid, when I believed in ghosts. I would look into my dark hallway and think I was seeing things, but it was imagination. I don’t understand why all these women couldn’t understand that it was just their brain being creative and putting pictures together. Or maybe the spirits they were describing were people they passed on the street a week earlier? It was just buried in their unconscious?

It seemed most of the things these women (or the man at the reading) said, were from movies. Clichés. Lockets and wedding rings, etc. Romantic sentimental clichés. There was nothing truly interesting or remarkable at all.

One funny part: There was only one young man in the whole class. He was clearly only there to get lucky. When it was his turn to speak, he said, in his sexy foreign accent, ”I see a man, and he is holding a red rose. He wants to give it to somebody in the class, but I won’t say who!" All the women blushed. Smooth one, Romeo.

The worst part was, I asked the director what would happen if the reading went bad? ”It will end on the cutting room floor." Some documentary! This whole experience is going to be spliced and cut to only show the hits, and there will be angelic glorious music to show how amazing it all is. It makes me sick

Jordan, I applaud your analysis of this experience. When the show is broadcast, I hope you’ll provide us with an account of just what was edited out of the raw material. That would be a very significant way to demonstrate how creative manipulation of data can slope the meaning and impact of the end product.





IN CLOSING

In the past week we’ve enjoyed the company of some 90+ cruise companions who heard talks by Richard Saunders – who came all the way from Australia – Phil Plait, Rebecca Watson, and myself. Our Amazing Adventure Alaska Cruise has been a great success, and we thank all those who promoted and organized it. Getting this SWIFT to you wasn’t easy, but somehow we managed, in spite of being out of touch with computer and/or phone facilities while at sea. Now we’re looking forward to our upcoming Galapagos tour…!