January 21, 2005


THE AMAZ!NG MEETING 3

It's over. The shouting has died down, the wonderful guests and speakers have gone home, and at the JREF we're beginning to recover. It was a smash, a huge success, gangbusters. The big problem we now face is how to make TAM4 an equal to it. That won't be easy....

Looking over the evaluation sheets briefly, prior to a detailed summary, I can tell you that Richard Dawkins received a perfect score, all fours — which doesn't really surprise us much. Richard Wiseman, even though his name was not included on the evaluation sheet because of his late entrance into the lists, scored way up top, and Christopher Hitchens was a huge hit. We received a raft of very useful suggestions, a few complaints, and detailed descriptions of what attendees would like to see at the next meeting. I must add that there were a few folks who felt that a zero-to-four scoring was insufficient, and gave Professor Dawkins a five or a six....!

I must offer my grateful thanks to the JREF staff, who labored long and diligently to create this very successful conference. Letters will shortly be on their way to those who participated, far too numerous to mention here. If I were to read all of the laudatory comments that arrived both on the evaluation sheets and via e-mail, my hat size would go up by several points; I'll try to resist that. We're very, very, happy with the reaction and with the reception of our efforts, the DVD of the meeting is being created right now, and plans for the next one are well under way. Go to www.lasvegasweekly.com/2005/01/20/feature02.html to see an excellent article about the meeting.

Many of you expressed disappointment that Fred Durant, our excellent friend who they expected to see at TAM3, was unable to show up. I know that Fred will look forward to receiving all the information that we developed at the meeting.

The "paper" session on Sunday was particularly well received, and we anticipate that we will be including at least some of the papers, next year, in the Saturday session. The quality of the delivered papers was exceptional.

Thank you, folks. It was a lot of work, but well worth the results.


INSUFFICIENT EXCUSES

Reader Joe Ragusa, a "Friend Member" of the JREF, asks:

Did you see Larry King the other night? He had on six people representing different religious views to help explain the tsunami tragedy. They included a Catholic priest, a Southern Baptist, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew and our good friend Deepak Chopra (the snake oil salesman). As I expected, these gentlemen offered little understanding about natural disasters, offering little more than "God loves us" and "we have to let him work through us by being charitable." Like we really need a divinity degree to know when to be charitable.

It also amazed me how well I was able to predict what these wonderful God-fearing people would say: The Buddhist talked of desire and misery. (I don't know that a natural disaster is the result of desire). The Jew talked of God's love. (Apparently he never read the Old Testament). The Southern Baptist was so busy trying to proselytize in between sentences that I tuned him out after awhile. (It's amazing how many times people can say Jeeeeesus in one breath). Chopra of course spouted all kinds of nonsense about the possibility of influencing natural events through thought, and misappropriating quantum physics to explain how. The Muslim said something to the effect that his proof of God is that He is constantly testing us. (Well then what the hell does He want from us that He has to let about 100,000 people die.)

I'm just sorry that there was not one naturalist philosopher who would state the simple truth: that we live in a precarious world run by natural laws. It may sound bleak, but I would think that after thousands of years the religionists could come up with something better than banalities. "God's plan makes sense in the end" is one of my favorites.

Agreed, Joe. They just can't explain themselves, so they resort to the tired old alibis that they've depended upon for centuries. Are we ever going to grow up?


THE WONDERFUL DERREN BROWN

Reader Paul Power in the UK urges me:

If you have not already heard of him, have a look at the website of Derren Brown at http://www.derrenbrown.co.uk. He's a fantastic mentalist, whose latest coup was to fool people that he had paranormal powers, in the "Messiah" TV program, broadcast on British TV recently. He did a series of different tricks: He convinced psychics that he could read minds by describing some drawings they'd made, he told a paranormal publisher about a dream she had had — with the aid of a device he told her was based on crystals, he did a session of communicating with the dead and he converted people to Christianity by touching them.

Interestingly, no one asked him if he was faking. Indeed the first comment on him was one expert opining that there was sincerity "in his eyes."

He has done many an amazing trick. For instance, he went to a greyhound racing track and managed to get paid for backing dogs that came last, simply by presenting his bet receipt and repeating that it was a "winner." My favorite was done with three lapdancers at their club. Noting how important it is that they be able to tell if they have been touched, he had one close her eyes and count the number of times he touched her hand. He made three motions of an index finger towards her hand but clearly did not touch even once. When she opened her eyes she said she had been touched three times, to giggles from her colleagues, who set her straight. Incredibly, he then repeated the trick with one of the other girls who insisted she had been touched even though she had seen her colleague get it wrong earlier.

If you ever get a chance to see him at work, or to catch one of his TV programs, you will have a very enjoyable and enlightening experience.

Paul, Derren and I are in touch, and I've seen these wonders. He compares well with our Banachek, and I can't wait to see these two together! I hope to make a much closer relationship with Mr. Brown, and perhaps work a plot or two with him. Stay tuned!

Reader Mark Thompson has similar observations on the same show:

I have been reading your commentary on your site for a good while now and enjoy it immensely.

I thought you might be interested to know about a television program which aired here in the UK recently on Channel 4 called "Messiah." It was made by Derren Brown who you may have heard of. He uses "Mind Control" techniques (shown on other TV programs with members of general public) to get people to do things or convince them of things that aren't true and generally confuse and astound. I freely admit that I haven't got a clue how he does this but he is clear that everything is just done through suggestion and other "Mind Control" techniques, not magic or any other supernatural nonsense.

Anyway, Messiah had him go over to the Unites States where he is completely unknown posing as different people claiming extraordinary gifts trying to get endorsements from well known "experts" in certain supernatural fields. He started with a woman called Abbey Haydon (sp?) who apparently trains psychics. He was able to convince her that he had psychic abilities by getting her to draw things on a pad in another room while he got someone else to write down what she was drawing each time. Afterwards, one of the other psychic "trainers" with her said that he would happily use what he had just seen as a textbook example of how to do it! Abbey herself exclaimed that she could soon be out of a job.

Next he demonstrated how to convert people to believe in god just by touching them. I have no idea how he did this but he managed to convert a whole room of sceptical people. A nice touch was after this scene a caption was displayed explaining that they were "converted" back afterwards.

Next up was a demonstration of something called a "Dream Catcher". He confessed beforehand that it is just a metal box with a switch which turns on a green light, although in character he claims that it runs on some sort of crystal energy (this made me chuckle). He managed very quickly to convince a lady called Lorraine Defelice in Las Vegas who is an authority on supernatural phenomena, that he had recorded her dreams. She seemed very impressed and keen to get him interviewed for her radio show. He made his excuses and declined this offer, having achieved his endorsement.

Then he moved on to meet a lady called Ann Druffel who is supposedly an expert on UFO abduction. He claimed to be someone who had been visited by aliens ten years ago and is now able to discern people's medical history by them touching him. He demonstrated this "ability" with Ann herself who was astonished at his "100% accuracy." (I think she had seen many people claim this power or similar over the years but never shown so convincingly as this).

Finally, the most disturbing one (for him personally) was where he used a combination of cold (and, I suspect, "warm" although he didn't say this) reading techniques to a group of avowedly sceptical people claiming to be able to contact the dead. They showed three of them on the show, all were convinced it was real. The endorsement he was seeking here was from Janet Muhovec (sp?) and she seemed persuaded, even talking about taking him "to the next level" — whatever that means. Another nice touch here was that the three people shown had the true nature of the program explained to them afterwards and all had agreed to have their sections included.

All in all this was a fascinating programme examining how people can be convinced of things by someone openly admitting it is all trickery.

One last thing, he said at the start of the show that if at any point anybody had asked him if it was a trick he would have immediately admitted it. At no point did anyone question his abilities.

It seems apparent that we have to establish much closer ties to Derren, and we'll try to get him to attend and participate in the next Amaz!ing Meeting.


WHEN A DOCTOR IS NOT A DOCTOR

Reader Louise, in San Carlos, California, has a legitimate beef:

I have been helped periodically by a chiropractor. The problem is that adjustments never last. Feels fine for a while. My real anger with them comes with the term "Dr." They're not doctors of anything. Most are high school graduates who have had 2 to 2 years of chiropractic school, not even undergraduate work in a junior college. This claim of "doctor" by chiropractors is an insult to real doctors of medicine, veterinary fields, and PhDs who have had years of graduate work, research, papers, etc. I'm surprised that the law allows such terminology. Gosh, I have an MA degree, years more college than my chiropractor, and no one can call me "doctor." Bah, humbug!

Well, thanks for listening. I needed to vent this anger somewhere (probably why my back is out).

Louise, chiropractors actually do have a legal right to use the term "doctor" if they've completed the prescribed course in that discipline — whether we like it or not. I'm sure that regular MDs resent that, as you do, but it's a matter of definition, not of validity of efficacy.

I'm happy to let you express your opinion, which I share....


DUBOIS AGAIN

Here are a few excerpts, with my comments, about a recent news article about Dr. Gary Schwartz, PhD, the scientist from the University of Arizona who fancies that he has established the existence of life-after-death because he cannot believe he's deceived by the talking-to-dead-people artists. The first item involves his meticulous investigation of Allison Dubois, a "psychic" discussed here recently. To no one's surprise, Schwartz found her to be in touch with woo-woo forces:

Schwartz first put Dubois through a direct, informal reading on himself. A beloved mentor of his had just died, but he told her nothing about that woman. Among other things, Dubois told Schwartz "the deceased was telling me that I must share the following — I don't walk alone," a seemingly innocuous piece of information, but critical to him.

"My friend had been confined to a wheelchair in her last years — there is no way Allison could have known that," he said.

Wow! A stunning hit! How can we deny that "not walking alone" perfectly describes being confined to a wheelchair? Well, most of us won't be able to see that perfect description, Dr. Schwartz. How about having friends or a companion, being married, having supporters, being a member of a support group, etc., etc.? It certainly does not describe being in a wheelchair. I know several persons who are thus confined, and though they don't walk, they get around quite well! Where are your standards for arriving at such an identity, Dr. Schwartz? If Allison had described your friend as saying "I have support," would that define that she received a pension, used crutches, a truss, or a wheelchair, had inherited money, had insurance, or received encouragement? You are leaping to an unsupportable conclusion here, but of course you need to, to maintain your fantasies. So you don't walk alone, perhaps....? To continue:

After that, the formal, scientific experiments began under controlled conditions — some of them completely "blinded," so Dubois could not see or talk to the person she was reading, or vice versa. They were not even told each other's full names.

Hey, Schwartz! A junior Boy Scout could develop a better protocol without even graduating from Harvard — an accomplishment you never fail to press on us. "Some of" the experiments were not "blinded"? Why weren't all of them blinded? Because Dubois wouldn't do them that way, or because you decided they didn't need to be done like that? And, no "full names"? Only "George" or "Lucy"? Gee, that only tells the gender, I guess. But who cares? Allison is the real thing, so we can throw her that bone.

In one of these experiments, Dubois was asked to contact a deceased person close to a woman in England she had never met. She was told only the woman's first name and that she wanted to hear from her deceased husband. During the actual reading, Dubois was at the UA lab, and the woman was in England.

Okay. This sort of situation would indicate that conditions are pretty good, right? True, we have the gender of both the "readee" and the sought-after "spirit" or "ghost," and the relationship between the two, but we can accept that data-leak. The geographic separation is also good. But then it all falls apart, though Schwartz seems unaware of that — perhaps willingly ignorant in this respect. Continuing:

A transcript of the information Dubois got during the reading — supposedly from the dead husband — was sent to his wife in England, who scored it as 73 percent accurate. "That's extraordinarily high accuracy, and Allison always scored in the near-80 percent range," Schwartz said. "That clearly puts her among the best of the best."

Really? Well, I'm willing to accept that figure, Dr. Schwartz, but I have an observation: the reading must have run on forever, for there had to be at least 100 data-points given by Dubois in order to provide an accuracy of 73 percent, but arriving at such a percentage is meaningless anyway, since we don't have the data, and don't know the probability of each statement being true when applied to a randomly selected individual. But that's of little importance, since luckily we can now examine that transcript, and by inquiring of the woman in the UK, we will have validation of that accuracy, won't we? What??!! We can't have access to the transcript or to the subject? Drat!

Schwartz has established beyond any discussion, the fact that we can't see his data. Only the Society for Psychical Research, his publisher, can see that material — and perhaps not even them, for all we know. Certainly, a mere magician in Florida cannot be granted access! Back to the Adventures of Gary the Naïve. Says he, concerning the JREF million-dollar prize that both he and the University of Arizona have refused:

"I refused for the same reason all serious scientists in America and Europe have refused. The process of this prize lacks scientific credibility and integrity," he said. "This guy is not a scientist — he is a mediocre magician who loves the public eye."

Well, I'm not about to argue with Schwartz about "this guy's" mediocrity, but I'll tell you that when Professor John Taylor of King's College, London, referred to me years ago similarly as "a mere conjuror," my response seemed adequate: "Conjuror, yes, John, but 'mere' — never!"

The JREF prize has every bit of "scientific credibility and integrity." It is vetted and supervised by the best and most respected scientists, from MIT, Columbia, Yale, and other academic centers all over the world — alas, but not from Harvard, which might be a fatal flaw. It's real, it has integrity and credibility, and Dr. Gary Schwartz knows it well. His arrogant ivory-tower dismissal of this magician is understandable, since he is defenseless before the challenge we offer and must studiously ignore it.

But wait.... There's that transcript sent to the UK. Perhaps an established academic out there would care to ask Dr. Schwartz for a copy? Would he, and will he, refuse a real academic access to that material for the purpose of an analysis and evaluation? More to the point, would he provide Dr. Ray Hyman with a copy? Even better: will Dr. Schwartz give a copy to the University of Arizona's President, Dr. Peter Likens?

Let's see....!

Meanwhile, refer to www.csicop.org/si/2001-11/mediums.html and http://skepdic.com/essays/schwartz.html for in-depth references to Schwartz's findings. Be sure to be seated with your seat-belts fastened; it's a bumpy ride.


IN CONCLUSION....

Yep, a little short this week, but I'm pressed for time right now. Off to New York for an ABC-TV appearance on Tuesday....