SWIFT October 5, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Truth Is Actionable, Egg On Their Collective Faces, Now It Can Be Told, A Call for More Teeth In the Law, Ammunition for the Homeopaths, Making a Fuss, Giving Up the Ghost, And From Hungary, Yet More Cables, Consider This, New Laws, Old News, A Contrary Expectation, Watch This, A Small Hallelujah, and Robbins Strikes Again!

AdamEveSteve Bitterman, 60, was an instructor at Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa. Last week, he dared to tell his students that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted. Truth is not much a part of Iowa curricula, it seems, so a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a Western Civilization class intimidated the faculty enough that the teacher was fired.

Bitterman objected, and rightly so:

I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree… have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job.

The Southwestern Community College president, Barbara Crittenden, said that Bitterman taught one course at Southwest, but declined comment on his claim that he was fired specifically over the Bible reference, claiming that it was a personnel issue. The teacher said that he uses the Old Testament in his Western Civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.

Table of Contents

  1. Truth Is Actionable

  2. Egg On Their Collective Faces

  3. Now It Can Be Told

  4. A Call for More Teeth In the Law

  5. Ammunition for the Homeopaths

  6. Making a Fuss

  7. Giving Up the Ghost

  8. And From Hungary

  9. Yet More Cables

  10. Consider This

  11. New Laws

  12. Old News

  13. A Contrary Expectation

  14. Watch This

  15. A Small Hallelujah

  16. Linda Reports

  17. Robbins Strikes Again!



TRUTH IS ACTIONABLE

Steve Bitterman, 60, was an instructor at Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa. Last week, he dared to tell his students that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve should not be literally interpreted. Truth is not much a part of Iowa curricula, it seems, so a handful of students who threatened legal action over his remarks in a Western Civilization class intimidated the faculty enough that the teacher was fired.

Bitterman objected, and rightly so:

I’m just a little bit shocked myself that a college in good standing would back up students who insist that people who have been through college and have a master’s degree… have to teach that there were such things as talking snakes or lose their job.

The Southwestern Community College president, Barbara Crittenden, said that Bitterman taught one course at Southwest, but declined comment on his claim that he was fired specifically over the Bible reference, claiming that it was a personnel issue. The teacher said that he uses the Old Testament in his Western Civilization course and always teaches it from an academic standpoint.

When Bitterman’s course was telecast to students in Osceola over the Iowa Communications Network, a few students in the classroom thought that the lesson “denigrated” their religious views. But Bitterman has his ducks in a row. Says he:

I put the Hebrew religion on the same plane as any other religion. Their god wasn’t given any more credibility than any other god. I told them it was an extremely meaningful story, but you had to see it in a poetic, metaphoric or symbolic sense, and that if you took it literally, you were going to miss a whole lot of meaning there.

He said that during a conversation with a student after the class, he referred to the Adam and Eve story as a "fairy tale" and was then told that students had threatened to see an attorney. He summed it up well:

I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here. From my point of view, what they’re doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century.

But let’s go back to that “talking snakes” reference by Bitterman. It’s obvious that he – and all other teachers working at Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa – would have to accept this somewhat unlikely premise, and teach it as fact, or get fired. Just how far can human credulity and naivety be stretched? There are lots of similar fairy tales that Young Iowa would probably embrace, and certainly their need for mythology should be respected, right? We needn’t bring in The Cowardly Lion or Winnie the Pooh, when The Infallible Good Book provides us with others. Consider:

In Genesis 2:4-3:26 a serpent in the Garden of Eden spoke to Adam and Eve, and apparently was understood. Also, the Book of Numbers – King James version, of course! – has someone named Balaam not only talking to God, but also talking to his ass! His ass not only answers, but argues with his/her owner! It may be that my understanding of Gospel is wanting, but I challenge you to read this account, from Numbers Chapter 22, verses 21– 33, without falling down laughing. Just try reading it out loud to someone who’ll listen…!

And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. And God’s anger was kindled because he went: and the angel of the LORD stood in the way for an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

But the angel of the LORD stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall: and he smote her again.

And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.

Were you counting? That’s three smitings [smotes? smotings?] that Balaam has delivered to his ass, and the poor thing just has to respond:

And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.

The old saying, “cutting off your nose to spite your face” immediately occurs to me at this point, along with the obvious variations, but I’ll resist invoking that…

And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

Note, please, that Balaam fell on his face, not on his ass, that being thrice-smitten and probably rather sensitive…

And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.

Now, we must conclude from this that Balaam’s ass could see spiritual beings that humans could not, and had independent thoughts which were spoken by her when God opened her mouth. Balaam did not seem surprised that the ass spoke, and he answered her back very rudely. With men who talk to their asses, it was ever thus…





EGG ON THEIR COLLECTIVE FACE

Reader Mike Walford in the UK:

I thought I drop you a quick line on an advert found in the back of this months (#182 Oct) BBC Focus magazine, which promotes itself as "the world’s best science and technology monthly," yet an advert in the back proudly sells the Ethos Egg, a real gemstone egg with amazing properties. Here are some extracts from the company’s website at the-ethos-egg-range.com:

Protect yourself and your loved ones from radiation from mobile phones, computers, televisions, geopathic stress, other people’s energies, “sha chi,” blocked ki, entities, electromagnetic pollution and many other environmental stresses.

If you have an Energy Egg base transmitter – the clear quartz donut – touch it flat to the topmost part of your head for about 5 seconds, making sure your finger isn’t over the transmitter’s central hole. This connects the Transmitter to three channels of energy that run between the top and bottom of your energy field. This connection enables the Energy Egg’s protection to extend to your whole energy body all of the time, no matter how far away you are from the transmitter.

Your Energy Egg transmitter is attuned to you permanently – unless it’s touched to the top of someone else’s head. The transmitter only transmits the Energy Egg’s signal and placing anything else on it has no effect. The Energy Egg transmitter can be connected to a baby, an animal or a pet in exactly the same way.

You can even prevent allergic reactions:

Look at the allergen while tapping your Energy Egg on the centre of your brow three times then do three weaving breaths on your Energy Egg while looking at your E-Egg.

All this from only £25.53 [US$52]!

While I understand that the adverts in the back of any magazine may bear no relation to the editorial side of things, it annoyed me intensely, I find it a very poor and unsuitable choice for a science magazine.

I agree, Mike, but I must tell you that in this country a publication might have a very difficult time – legally – refusing to run such an advertisement, as silly, juvenile, pseudoscientific and vapid as this one obviously is…





NOW IT CAN BE TOLD

There are many events that we cannot announce or discuss until an appropriate time arrives, due to legal maneuvers and possible infractions of statutes. Somebody named Christopher Roller recently sued me and the JREF, claiming that certain conjuring tricks he’d seen me do, could not be done by trickery. This, of course, is the ultimate ego trip; it essentially says that if he can’t figure it out using his super-sensitive observing powers, it must be the real thing. He sued, claiming that I have divine powers, and that I am thus concealing from the public my own use of real magic… Duh…

I should add here that Roller also sued David Copperfield, claiming that David had supernatural powers, and was intruding on his territory because he – Roller – was God. Double duh… And he claimed he’d be running for President with Bill Gates. I’m out of duhs…

In bringing the lawsuits, Roller represented himself – further evidence of his superior mentality. Well, we essentially won on all counts, and this nutjob cannot file any more lawsuits without having a real lawyer signing the complaint. This would make any such legit lawyer subject to sanctions from the court. Now, Roller will doubtless try, but no clerk will accept such a filing.

The federal judge has affirmed the Magistrate’s Order dismissing Roller’s case against the Foundation and moi. However, just the other day Roller also filed an affidavit claiming that the local lawyer representing us, tried to kill him. There seems no end to the man’s paranoia.

In short, the court clerk will not accept any further cases filed by Roller against us, or regarding claims or allegations against any defendant similar to those alleged in the original complaint. In addition, the Secret Service was given this fellows complaints by the court’s bailiff, so his problems may escalate well beyond not getting access to the federal courts…

One down, many, many, to go…

We must question the fact that an obviously demented and untreated person is legally allowed to thus take time and money from others in pursuit of what is clearly a mental aberration and not a genuine cause for complaint or a real threat. We address this problem further in the following item.





A CALL FOR MORE TEETH IN THE LAW

We have to seriously wonder whether the courts have very much power, when it comes to cut-and-dried matters that would seem – to the ordinary observer – to have been legally decided and ruled upon. Moe and Tubby Miller, the leaders of the former Gentle Wind Project – the cult that was shut down in Maine by the Attorney General – are now directing their new enterprise, Family Systems Research Group – FSRG – using a New Hampshire telephone number. The Millers were – we had the impression – put out of business. See www.windofchanges.org – the website of former GWP followers – which certainly gives that impression. But now comes an e-mail announcement from the FSRG:

Our phone numbers are changing. The best number to call is 1-603-365-1102.

Also, we will be coming to San Diego in Oct. for a week-end Conference. We will be discussing the new hexagram technology and giving all participants the opportunity to use the latest instruments. Here are the details. If you would like to attend, call the above phone number. Seating is limited and we are already half full.

Really? It appears that all these people have to do, after being thoroughly exposed as scam artists, is to change their name and their location, and continue on in business. Now, I’m aware that – so far – they’re only prohibited from continuing their swindle in the State of Maine, but aren’t there Attorneys General in other States – hello, New Hampshire and California! – who might be interested in an invasion by charlatans?

Inquiring minds – ours – want to know.





AMMUNITION FOR THE HOMEOPATHS

As we know, the quacks will seize upon the smallest shred of real scientific evidence, distort it and misquote it, and adopt it. The homeopaths have been rattling on for years about the “memory of water” notion, and now reader “Dan” alerts us to this:

As a long time fan of the JREF and SWIFT, I offer a couple of articles your readers might find interesting. Click in on tinyurl.com/ypfbdw and tinyurl.com/2n5v4w. Both refer to the microstructure of water and how it is maintained or lost under the specific experimental conditions given. Although the articles in no way imply that water retains any kind of microstructure under normal conditions, or to the extent implied by homeopaths, I am sure someone will extol these findings as a demonstration of how we are only scratching the surface of the homeopathic properties of water.

As usual this will be accomplished by taking quotes out of context and applying the experimental results to conditions beyond the limits of the experiment or the observed effects. For me, it just continues to demonstrate the amazing things that can be found by experimentation and how little we actually know about a substance as common as water when placed under specific conditions to which it is not commonly exposed. I am sure there are far more things we do not know – or have yet verified – that there are things we do know – or have verified. However, the mere excess of the former does not dictate a complete refutation of the latter.

True, of course, Dan. I thank you for bringing these two items to my attention. They describe quite astonishing phenomena, I must say. And, each of these discoveries not only reveals unsuspected properties of this common substance – H2O – but points to possible beneficial applications that may eventually result! Mind you, homeopathy is not one of those boons…!

In the same vein, this next item:





MAKING A FUSS?

Reader David Crawford of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, is alarmed and has taken action:

Hello Randi. I trust all is well in your world. Thanks as always for your ongoing efforts to help the world think. I was recently infuriated by a column written by a local homeopath. The actual column is not available online – but you can laugh at his other poorly written columns here: tinyurl.com/38ukw4

Here is my letter:

I am getting really tired of the fear mongering that “alternative medicine practitioners” spout these days. Your columnist John Sherman is but one of them.

Homeopaths reject the fundamental tenets of science every day by peddling their laughable bottled water as some sort of miracle cure for anything and everything. A visit to www.quackwatch.org or www.randi.org is very educational for those who are curious about this and many other supposed therapies.

It worries me deeply that these quacks can offer their hogwash to the vulnerable and gullible in our society with no oversight whatsoever. Alternative providers insult our intelligence – and betray their own ignorance – by repeatedly harping about possible side effects of inoculations and other forms of mainstream medicine. I hate to break the news, gang, but real medicines can actually prove they work. Alternative treatments simply cannot. Further – if and when an alternative treatment proves its efficacy – guess what? It becomes a part of standard, science and evidence-based medicine.

It breaks my heart to think that because of people’s delusions, children are being condemned to blindness, deafness, brain damage, infertility, or even death, simply because uninformed people choose to reject the good science about vaccinations.

Yes, the shots have ingredients, and yes they can have side effects. But the overall good far exceeds the negative. And no – the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism, for goodness sake. Read the real research – not the hype and horse manure spouted by your chiropractor.

A desire to reject vaccinations means that you are ultimately in favor of your offspring contracting polio, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough – and countless other preventable, terrible diseases. What a cruel and ignorant thing for a parent to do. How selfish.

It is wonderful to be able to explore alternatives in health care – but don’t be so open minded that your brain falls out.

I’ll let you know if there is any response. Who am I kidding – I’ll send you his foaming-at-the-mouth, back-pedaling response when it arrives!

David, you mean, if it arrives… These folks prefer not to acknowledge such valid criticism and confrontation, taking the defensive attitude that if they say nothing, the opposition will simply evaporate. I trust that you will make every effort to follow up on this matter…





GIVING UP THE GHOST

Reader Craig Anderson of New Jersey, tells us:

An item in your most recent Swift reminded me of my old days of being a ghost-hunter. I’m a librarian working at Kean University in New Jersey. Back when I was still in library school, I had a professor who encouraged our class to take an area of interest to us, and do some responsible library research on it. Now, I’ve always loved a good ghost story. I still do! Give me an old house, a history of murder and mayhem, and turn the lights out. That’s just fun to me. At the time, I honestly believed that there was something truthful about ghost stories. I didn’t believe in Bigfoot, Alien Abductions, or Vampires, I was a very reasonable person! Or so I thought. But ghosts just seemed credible to me.

So I contacted a few ghost hunting organizations. This was before the popular "Ghost Hunters" show on the Sci-Fi channel, but at least I had some web addresses. I arranged to follow a group in South Jersey and sit in on one of their investigations.

Now, I suspected that ghost hunters would have a lot of use for a librarian. If you were investigating a house, you’d need a lot of information on previous owners, local history, and any events that had occurred in the place. So I started investigating on my own. I did, in fact, call a few real estate agencies in the area, and ask whether there was any truth to the rumor that you were required by law to reveal whether a house was "haunted" or not. The agents that I spoke to all agreed that YES, you are required by law to reveal the haunted history of a residence, but one of the agents described it to me in a different way. She said that the house’s reputation goes toward the personal beliefs of the customer. It’s the same thing as a restaurant being required to tell a Jewish person if a certain dish is Kosher or not. If a person believes in ghosts, and the house has been reported "haunted," you are required to reveal that fact to them. Otherwise you are deceiving the client, whether you believe in ghosts or not.

When I met with the ghost investigation team, I have to say that this was one of the nicest groups of people that I’ve met. They weren’t crazy, they weren’t all full of new-age woo-woo claptrap, they simply had a set of beliefs regarding paranormal investigation. On our first investigation, I’ll admit that I was a little scared. You’re in a house, you’ve interviewed the family, you know that there’s something strange and creepy going on there.

Then the head of the investigation team tells you that he’s going to shut out all the lights and force you to wait in the dark for dead people to arrive.

When the lights first go out, it’s creepy. Damn creepy. Every little noise you hear, every little shadow out of the corner of your eye seems like a restless spirit. People in the investigation business talk about "feeling a presence." You can’t HELP but to feel an eerie presence. Every little creak and scratch makes you want to jump out of your skin!

Randi comments: Ummm, no, I don’t get these reactions, Craig. I understand that some others do, and you obviously do. But don’t assume everyone feels this way. I’ve slept in “haunted” places, to satisfy folks who swear I’ll be disturbed, but I’ve slept very soundly…

But then after a while, you get bored. You keep thinking that you’re going to hear a voice from the beyond, and NOTHING happens. You don’t see a screaming bloody apparition running down the hall at you, there are no headless brides in the attic. It’s just a quiet house at night, with a few creaks and groans now and again.

As I said, the people in my group were very nice people, very intelligent, and very sane. Not the type to make up a haunting just for attention. They were earnestly trying to help these poor homeowners who were living with a spirit from the beyond. But what do you have to go on when there don’t seem to be any ghosts?

Well, hang on there, just because there weren’t any Hollywood special effects doesn’t mean that there were no ghosts, right? Didn’t you feel that draft just now? There’s no wind outside, how can there be a draft? And that pen that was just on the table, how did it roll down onto the floor? You weren’t near it, were you? Then we’ve got photographic anomalies that look like ghostly white orbs, we’ve got scratchy sound clips that just might be a human voice, and to top it all off, our resident "sensitive" clearly felt the presence of an old man named Joseph who was murdered in the bedroom.

Yep, this place is clearly haunted.

And that was it. It was no carefully constructed conspiracy to rip off anyone. this group never charged a fee. It was all charity work. It wasn’t a bunch of crackpots seeing things. It was a group of very normal people, with a little selective methodology. And again, this was really a great bunch of guys – and girls. I only went on a few investigations with them, but I’d gladly do so again, just because they were so fun to hang out with. And because I love a good ghost story.

But I think that the thing that made me the most skeptical – and actually started me wandering around skeptical websites, yours especially – was the fact that there was never a follow-up. After we left the house, with all of our investigative data, we never looked for a correlation. I was never asked to use my library skills to see if "a man named Joseph" had been murdered in the house, or even lived in the house! I was never called upon to search local history, or look up old police reports. The homeowners got to say that they had a real-life ghost investigation team show up, and we got pretty "evidence" to post on the website.

Sometimes, I miss the world of professional ghost investigation. It was a lot of fun while it lasted. But at least I’m not afraid of being in a pitch-dark room anymore….

You’ve forgotten one important motive here, Craig. These folks get attention that they’d never otherwise get, they make close friends, and they even show up in the media. Those are “perks” you just can’t buy. Think about that… And, you spotted the glaring fact that they don’t seem to care at all whether the “evidence” checks out – and I suspect it’s because they don’t want ugly facts to spoil a perfectly good delusion…





AND FROM HUNGARY

Here’s a new place where curious folks can see actual physics experiments carried out – live – in Hungary. It’s at jedlik.phy.bme.hu/researchers’night and was suggested to me by my good friend Gyula Bencze, who is very active as an educator in his country. If you click on the page you can follow the events live. This was organized by Károly Härtlein, one of the prominent skeptics in Hungary. The live broadcast is done by the people who will work at the new Hungarian science channel. It’s expected that the experimental broadcast will begin in November, and the full program in January, 2008, provided those ever-present financial problems are solved.

Physics is a science that lends itself particularly well to actual visual demonstrations, and the video mode is well suited to easily attract and to interest students. We hope that the young folks who click in here will be inspired to find out more about what this “science” thing really is, and perhaps decide that it’s better than video games…

Perhaps, among today’s youth in Hungary, there’s a new young John von Neumann, a Wolfgang von Kempelen, or an Anna Balazs just waiting to contribute to mathematics, mechanics, or autism studies. Yes, I admit that Wolfgang was a bit of a rascal, but we need a little of that every now and then, to keep us alert…!





YET MORE CABLES

Hot on the item about those ridiculous "danceable" $7,250 cables from Pear Cable, comes what can only be described as a “topper.” The Pear Anjou cable’s $7,250 price hardly compares with the “Transparent Opus MM SC cables,” where a pair of 25-footers will run the suckers $43,000. No, that’s not a typo. They’re asking $860 a foot for these pieces of wire!

Other than comparing the name of the company to the nature of their scam, and observing that the lesson of “The Emperor’s News Clothes” might be invoked here, I’ll just quote a comment from a reader who has a more scientific viewpoint:

Sadly enough, viewed from an evolutionary standpoint, there have also always been members of our species buying this stuff.

Reader Ty Chamberlain of Plattsburg, MO, has some input on this subject, too:

Back in the mid 1980’s, I got suckered into the whole subjective-audio-reviewing thing by reading Stereophile. I REALLY believed I was hearing those differences... thankfully, I found a small publication called The Audio Critic. I learned more from a single issue of The Audio Critic than I did from YEARS of reading Stereophile or The Absolute Sound. Sadly, The Audio Critic no longer publishes an actual printed magazine, BUT, back issues are available for FREE on their website theaudiocritic.com. The issues are scanned in complete form and downloadable as PDF files. More current reviews are also posted there by The Audio Critics founder Peter Azcel. For many, many years Stereophile would attack Mr. Azcel and his publication in print – especially because he had a column called "Hip Boots" where he would expose the lies and hysterical technical blunders of Stereophile for all to see.

I have absolutely NOTHING to do with The Audio Critic – well, I did have a letter published once! But I think your readers who don’t know about it might enjoy reading the back issues; they are still 100% relevant to the audio scene today. And, as I said, they are available for free, so if you would, please tell your readers that there IS an antidote to the type of nonsense Stereophile spouts. www.theaudiocritic.com is the main address and the back-issues are at: www.theaudiocritic.com/cwo/Back_Issues


Thanks so much for reading this and for keeping up the fight for rationality!





CONSIDER THIS

Benjamin Radford is LiveScience’s Bad Science columnist. He’s co-author of "Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures" (2006). This and other books are noted at www.radfordbooks.com. He points out an interesting set of facts concerning the nature of evidence, and the lack thereof:

Adventurer Steve Fossett went missing Sept. 3 about 70 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada, in a small plane. He left no flight plan, and searchers have combed tens of thousands of square miles of Nevada and California. After weeks of fruitless searches, and with the survival window closing, Web users were enlisted to help in Fossett’s rescue, from the comfort of their own homes.

Using a program called Mechanical Turk, high-resolution satellite imagery of the search area was collected and analyzed. Participants were shown a single satellite image and asked to note any objects or wreckage that could be a plane or its debris.

The search did solve a few mysteries: several previously unknown small plane wrecks – some dating back to the 1950s – were found. Though Fossett and his plane remain missing, the satellite technology used to search for him could theoretically be applied to other types of searches. It may finally verify the existence of large, mysterious creatures reputed to inhabit the globe. Unknown animals such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, for example, might be easily located and captured – if indeed they exist.

While satellites would be of limited use in heavily wooded areas, Bigfoot creatures have been reported in many places with relatively little forest, including Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and Arizona. A single 12-foot Bigfoot may or may not be hard to spot, but a family of them would be easier to find. Furthermore, there cannot be only one Bigfoot; there must be a breeding population of them, by some estimates 6,000 to 10,000 in North America alone. Surely a coordinated, close search of satellite images would reveal dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of Bigfoot in remote areas at any given time.

The search could include bodies of water as well. Many lake monsters and sea serpents are reported to be 50 feet or longer, and surface regularly where they are seen. If armchair investigators are up to the task, they could monitor monster-inhabited lakes such as Scotland’s Loch Ness, Canada’s Lake Okanagan and America’s Lake Champlain using Google Earth technology. Monster buffs don’t need to dip their toes into cold lakes or brave the wilderness to search for their quarry; they can scan a dozen square miles over cup of hot coffee at their leisure.

Of course, if such searches are done and still reveal no solid proof of the monsters’ existence, few minds will be changed. Diehard believers can always claim that all the monstrous beasts somehow hid undetected or are masters at camouflage. Or the searchers didn’t look long enough or in the right places. It only takes one live or dead Bigfoot or lake monster to forever prove that they exist, but no amount of failed searches will ever prove they don’t.

Yes, that’s why we at JREF don’t deny the existence of telepathy, angels, dowsing skills, or other such fanciful notions; we let the woo-woos out there claim that these things exist, and then we challenge them to prove their claims. And there’s that million-dollar carrot hanging there in front of them…





NEW LAWS

Reader Don Watkins alerts us that the State of Michigan has now added a series of services to the list of those to which taxes will be added. While listing various previously untaxed items such as “baby shoe bronzing” and “singing telegram” services, they also brought in astrology, fortune-telling, numerology, palm reading, phrenology, and psychic services. And I note that they carefully specified an exemption by including

wedding chapel services, but not churches.

We wouldn’t want the free ride that religion – one of the most profitable businesses on Earth – enjoys, to be threatened in any way…

I feel that being taxed gives the impression of validity and government recognition.





OLD NEWS

Several readers – first William Buck of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho – called my attention to the fact that a recent set of tests by German researchers shows fake acupuncture to work nearly as well as the real thing for low back pain, and either kind performs much better than usual care. Almost half the patients they treated with acupuncture needles felt relief that lasted months. In contrast, only about a quarter of the patients receiving medications and other orthodox medical treatments felt better.

This sort of investigation – using both “genuine” acupuncture and a sham version – has been done many times before, for such diverse problems as fibromyalgia [a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons, as well as fatigue and multiple tender points], arthritis, the pain resulting from radiation treatment for cancer, and migraine. Note that the diseases themselves are not under test here, but only the pain symptoms, and pain is a very highly subjective phenomenon. Various investigations of palliative techniques have shown that suggestion alone is often very effective

Apparently, patients experienced not only reduced pain intensity, but also reported improvements in the disability that often results from back pain. This may very well be good evidence that pain messages to the brain can be blocked by competing stimuli. Here’s a parallel: It’s little known to anyone but veterinarians who handle hoses, but a very effective, non-invasive and chemical-free method of providing pain insulation to horses during minor surgery, is a process that involves holding the animal’s nose – via the nostrils – in blunt pincers, and applying a mild twisting movement. This area is a very sensitive and important one for a horse, and the strange input distracts it sufficiently that it’s attention is taken by this, rather than by the actual incision or other physical invasion, if it is temporary in nature.

Also, returning again to human subjects, expectations already held by patients about acupuncture could have led to a placebo effect and might explain the observed phenomenon. Again, I’ll point out that microbial and viral infections, fractured limbs, blood loss, punctures and burns, are not helped one bit by the placebo effect. Those are genuinely serious and life-threatening, and not something that wishful thinking can banish…





A CONTRARY EXPECTATION

Reader Joe Wilkins of Atlanta, Georgia, quite correctly observes:

I enjoyed reading the segment about the haunted house non-disclosure lawsuit in your last issue of Swift. I’m surprised the defense lawyer did not point out that the verifiable presence of a ghost in the house would not diminish the value of the house at all. It would, in fact, enhance the value of the house by one million dollars.

Next, Trent Troop of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a parallel thought:

I read with much interest the rather amusing legal anecdote regarding the poor fellow in New York’s poltergeist-ridden property. I feel that the answer to the question "Who you gonna call?" is pretty obvious in this case. The answer, of course, is "James Randi." If the homeowner can prove there’s a ghost there, the million dollar prize would surely compensate him for the impact to the property’s value. If he can’t, then the house gets a clean bill of health from the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Of course this probably wouldn’t work. The woo-woo crowd would still want there to be ghosts in residence and public perception is the real phantasm ruining the fellow’s property value. If property sales were rational, then houses where murders took place wouldn’t be "stigmatized properties" and no one would sign up for variable-rate loans. Still, I wonder if the owner has checked for the more mundane "haunting" components such as carbon monoxide, drafts, creaky old plumbing and bad wiring. I would be more concerned with the potential cause of the ghost legends than the legends themselves. The rattling sounds and flickering lights are spooky until you find out that your place needs thousands in contract work. After that the eerie haunted feeling is replaced by intense annoyance.

On a personal note, your videos have done a great deal for my own skepticism and I thank you for all your efforts.





WATCH THIS

Here we go again…

I’ve put my legendary fussbudget skills to work again, as I did for the item at this link, where I questioned the configuration of a watch-dial advertised on the back cover of TIME Magazine. This time, it’s a Rolex – the $4,500 Explorer II – which you see here in the ad on the back cover of the May 2007 Scientific American Magazine.

There are four ways that the time on this watch dial can be observed, each increasing in precision. A casual observation indicates that the time is 10:10:31 a.m., plus about .25 seconds. However, since we’re dealing here with a world-class “Superlative Chronometer,” we should expect that all the indicators on the watch dial will agree. They don’t quite do so.

First, we can examine the 24-hour (p.m. or a.m.) hand – the red one. That shows the time to be 10:09, though this is as close as we can come by such an understandably imprecise indicator, which in any case only has to give the user p.m. or a.m. information, and may very easily be allowed to be less accurate. We’ll forgive Rolex for this… Second, however, the hour-hand – from carefully measuring the angular position – shows the time to be 10:17, a full 7+ minutes off. Third, again measuring the angle, the minute-hand indicates 10:10:15, only 16+ seconds off. And fourth, as we said, the second-hand shows that the watch is at 10:10:31 plus about .25 seconds.

Yes, picky, picky, picky – I know. But it’s such observations that have led me to solve various puzzling aspects of human behavior and of technical discrepancies…

The illustration can be enlarged and printed, if you wish, so that you can apply your own fussbudget talents.





A SMALL HALLELUJAH

Reader Stew Taylor, in the UK:

Thought I’d send you a rather pleasing snippet from The Times of Saturday, September 29th:

Patients will no longer be able to receive homeopathy treatments at a specialist hospital because they are a waste of money and do not work, an NHS [National Health Service] trust said. Health bosses have decided that annual NHS funding of £160,000 [$323,000] for Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital in Kent could be better spent elsewhere. The hospital is one of five in Britain providing homeopathic treatment on the NHS.

Well, that’s one down, four to go then! No doubt our buffoon of an heir apparent will have some inane comment to make on the subject!





LINDA REPORTS

Representing the JREF, our fearless associate Linda Shallenberger, in the company of her husband Karl attended the recent annual Atheist Alliance International convention in the Washington DC area, and here’s her report:

Over 500 atheists, agnostics, anti-theists and various other non-believers came to hear an all-star lineup of speakers and to rejoice in the company of other like-minded people. Over 600 people were turned away and had to be content with watching a live feed over the internet. This was probably the largest convention of atheists ever, and President Margaret Downey is to be commended for a highly successful event.

The appearance of the “Four Horsemen” of the atheist movement, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, would alone have made for a thought-provoking and stimulating weekend, but other speakers included Matthew Chapman, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and an author and film maker, Julia Sweeney, Lori Lipman Brown, and Chris Harper (aka “Pastor Deacon Fred” of the satirical Landover Baptist Church) plus many more.

Matthew spoke of his experience at the Dover, PA, School Board case for intelligent design, as did Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, who also updated us on current activities of the NCSE. Professor Dennett received the Richard Dawkins award for outstanding atheist, an award that Randi was the first winner of in 2003.

The highlight of the conference for me, as well as many in the audience, was the appearance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken defender of women’s rights in Islamic societies. She was born in Somalia, and escaped an arranged marriage by emigrating to the Netherlands in 1992, where she became a member of the Dutch Parliament. She was forced to flee the country after producing Submission, a film about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. The director of the film, Theo van Gogh, was assassinated, and Ms. Ali is currently the target of death threats. Her grace, charm, and intelligence are inspiring, and hearing her speak of her past and how she was able to overcome her station in life, was worth the increased security present at the convention. She so charmed the audience that Prof. Richard Dawkins asked her during her Q&A if he could nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize!

We congratulate Margaret Downey for putting together such an inspiring convention.

I regret that I was unable to be present at this obviously powerful and satisfying event. Ah, but next year….

Click in on tinyurl.com/28zrgq to read the address given by author Sam Harris at the conference. Devastating, and Sam will be speaking for us at TAM6…!





ROBBINS STRIKES AGAIN!

As mentioned last week, Todd Robbins’ new show “The Charlatan’s Séance” is opening this week at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey. The dress rehearsal – in Todd’s words –

…killed. A room full of people laughing at claims of the paranormal is a beautiful sound. And people sitting in the dark singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken while people around them are screaming in terror, is a nice sound too.

For more info and a schedule about the show go to www.trtc.org/pages/1season/tartuffe.html. The New York Times says of this show, “Genuinely Eye-Popping!,” and those of you who know Todd from his appearances at TAM, or in a theater, will know just how entertaining he is. If you’re in the area, do go, won’t you?

Until next week…