January 30, 2004

The Shadow Knows, Decisions, Decisions, A Believer Rails, Ancient Flying Tables, Getting Closer to Business, Talk to Your Cat, Will They Never Learn?, Compulsory Feng Shui, Paying for Quacks, Those Crazy Finns!, Magic Charms for Pets, and Off to Germany...


Table of Contents:


THE SHADOW KNOWS

Windsor, Ontario, Canada, appears to be stuck in the 14th century. A "hyp" act scheduled to appear at two Catholic high schools was told to stay away after Bishop Ronald Fabbro of the London, Ontario, diocese, reached back in time to invoke a medieval rule from the Catholic Almanac, which forbids the practice of hypnotism "for the sake of amusement" because "hypnotized subjects may be induced to perform immoral acts which, normally, they would not do." "This has become a matter of concern for some, including myself," the bishop said, noting that the ban would "safeguard the subject's virtue." I guess that's the Evil Eye Rule. And eye of newt, toe of frog, are also banned, I'm sure.

Blair Robertson was the hyp act who was contracted to appear at two high schools in November, until he heard that the schools' principals had cancelled the performances. However, Reverend Larry Brunet, pastor of the local Catholic board, said that the Church does not oppose "legitimate" uses for hypnotism, such as helping people quit smoking or losing weight. Interesting. Since we know that hypnosis is useless for these purposes, it seems that the Church not only believes the quackery aspects of the novelty, but also endorses its "power" to invoke sin. Fourteenth century, anyone...?

The actuality is that "hypnotism" has no value other than in the role of facilitating the basic wishes and needs of the "subject," desires that were there in the first place, but only needed some seeming hocus-pocus to make it more palatable for the subject to go through with the reforms needed. People just will not do anything that they don't already want to do, when subjected to the oscillating watch or the hand-waving so dear to the practitioners of this flummery. But we should remember that the Church is very fond of dressing-up, chanting, waving incense about, and invoking mysterious powers. Therefore, I guess they didn't have any choice about believing in this nonsense; it's built into their system.

Obviously, the Bishop's opinion carries a lot of weight. "When the Bishop speaks, it's incumbent upon us to listen and take his guidance," said Leo Clark, principal of one of the high schools. "He certainly gives recommendation and guidance to us as Catholic educators."

If that's true, I can only wonder what other nonsense may be on the school's curriculum, and whether or not it's evidence-based, rather than faith-based, though the latter seems to be very popular with the present U.S. administration as it slowly becomes a theocracy....


DECISIONS, DECISIONS

Our good friend in Australia, Mark Plummer, tells us:

Over the New Year holiday I dropped in on an alterative festival called a CONFEST. There were about 5,000 hippies and other seekers of the truth and alternative medicine at this very attractive bush (forest) site. Because it was hot (the southern hemisphere's summer) most people went barefoot. As the bush floor contained many sharp sticks and other sharp stones and objects, many of the attendees cut their feet. The organizers had thoughtfully set up a first aid tent staffed by conventional practitioners of medicine. Many alternative healers and the like set up tents and healing workshops. Strangely, when the hippies cut their feet, all of them went straight to the practitioners of conventional medicine to have the wounds washed, antiseptic put on, and bandaged. None of them went to an alternative healer for treatment. Why?

I suspect that Mark already had the answer to his question.


A BELIEVER RAILS

A reader who will remain anonymous, for obvious reasons, writes:

I have the same point of view of paranormal things as you do. That is why it bothers me so much that several years ago my sister (now 39 yrs. is of age) suddenly turned into a spiritual nut, and she paid to have a reading over the phone with Sylvia Browne. Recently our extreme differences in views somewhat blew up and I have really let her have it as far as what I think of all the paranormal crap she now believes in. She has just gotten really weird. She's been putting all kinds of spiritual and biblical quotes in emails to me to try to explain herself and her view of the world. She is a very intelligent person, which adds to the confusion as to why she would fall victim to this stuff.

There is only one possible explanation I can come up with for this sudden change of direction for her. Just before she got into the paranormal stuff she suffered some sort of nervous breakdown and was actually somewhat suicidal (only contemplated it). She lives in Minnesota; I live in Florida, so I wasn't around her when all this happened. I am not sure of all the details and she hasn't been telling much to anyone. Does something like this trigger the extreme need for something to latch onto? I am assuming it can. This is her response to me after I challenged her to read your web page on cold reading (punctuation as in original):

Sylvia offered to take one of his cynical tests, AFTER he puts up the million dollars. He has no million dollars to put up. He is THE ONE WHO HAS BEEN PROVEN TO BE FULL OF IT! Your source is a phony — a proven phony. I have heard this man. HE IS A CYNIC! Sylvia is a proven healer and psychic. Proof?! Facts?!

Does it mean nothing to you that this woman saved your sister's life by giving a correct diagnosis after 4 doctors and 2 hospitals failed to do so?!?!?!?!?!?!?

I would be dead today if it were not for Sylvia Brown. Is this not enough!?!?!?! If not, I observe you to be a cynic as well. This is not wrong, it would just be What is True to You.

I have done exhaustive research on ALL of THIS! You observe me to be one of those idiots which you mentioned above. I am a critic, NOT a cynic.

Randi comments: as readers know, Sylvia Browne ignored the published rules of our test by demanding that we put the million dollars in escrow to satisfy her vanity and her highly suspicious nature. We did so, making an exception for this very noisy complainer, and we wrote to Larry King — by certified mail — back in November of last year, asking him to serve as the agent who would have complete control over the prize money, and would be authorized to pay it to Ms. Browne if she were to win it. Mr. King has declined to respond. I find that very significant.

The writer of these objections — who may be as "intelligent" as her brother says, though that doesn't guarantee that she's smart — falls back on the same old canard, namely, that the million-dollar-prize does not exist. Any number of times now, we have published the means whereby anyone can verify that the prize money is in place, ready to be awarded. This no-money claim is simply a lie, and anyone who has bothered to look into the objections is well aware of it. Obviously, this woman has chosen not to investigate. She is more comfortable with her delusions.

What does interest me here, is her statement that "Sylvia is a proven healer and psychic." Gee, folks, that's exactly what were trying to give her a chance to prove! There is no evidence whatsoever to show that Sylvia is either a healer, or a psychic, but she can choose to present any evidence she thinks she has, and she can show us not only that we were wrong, but that we are now minus $1 million! Come to think of it, Sylvia's correct diagnosis — in the face of the failure claimed for the real doctors — would also win her the million! Why is she not interested?

While we're on the subject of "cynic," it's defined in Webster's as, "a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view." I've never had that attitude, and I resent this woman assigning her own prejudices to me. The writer continues:

What can I show her that might prove to her that you really do have the money for the challenge? I am assuming that there may be no reasoning whatsoever with someone like this who is apparently so deep in her beliefs. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with someone like this in the family? I don't even feel like talking to her any more until she comes back "down to earth," but I am afraid that may be never.

I wish I had a satisfactory answer for you, sir. Your first question is easily answered, though it's very difficult to get a confirmed believer to do a simple search for that information; examining the terms of the challenge on our web page gives a direct means of validating the statement that the million dollars exists and is available. As for the rest of your problem, I'm not Dr. Phil....


ANCIENT FLYING TABLES

Reader Vincent Gordon is with the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and tells us that the society (www.americanantiquarian.org) has the largest collection of original American newspapers before 1877, over 2,000,000 original issues. They are open to the public for research, so our members and readers are most welcome to go there and do original research. In the past, they've had visitors use the collection to find material on 19th-century fraud, spiritualism, the Fox sisters, and other topics of interest to the JREF.

As an example of what can be found in their archives, Mr. Gordon provides us with this report:

The Washington Reporter (Washington, PA) May 4, 1853. Vo. 45, no. 43. Front page.

TABLE MOVING IN GERMANY!

Dr. Charles Andree, of Bremen, a scientific man of the highest character, writes to the Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung that the moving of tables, on the plan of our wonder-mongers, is exciting the greatest attention in the Hanseatic cities, being practiced by persons of every class. Dr. Andree gives an account of an experiment at which, tho' incredulous, he was present. Eight persons, three men and five women, sat around a mahogany center table, weighing some sixty pounds. The seats were so far apart that there was no contact of their garments to interfere with the process, — their hands were laid gently on the table, their fingers touching so as to form a chain or a circle.

After twenty minutes, one of the ladies could not bear it, and left the table; the others formed the chain again, and after some thirty minutes more the table began to move, first on its axis, and then across the room in a northerly direction, the persons who composed the circle following it. Their chairs were removed by some spectators the instant the moveing [sic] began. A slight attractive force was felt drawing their hands to the table. After the movement had continued four minutes, it was suggested that the persons should touch each other with their arms, though keeping their hands in the same position. This they did, and the movement stopped. On standing as before, it presently began again. Dr. Andree regards the existence of a current of some sort causing the movement, as demonstrated, and calls upon scientific men to institute experiments for the determination of its nature.

This is pretty well a description of the classic table-tipping stunt, a pastime that was quite popular right through the 1940s, and is still practiced extensively in the UK, though the novelty seems to have suffered a decline here in the USA in recent years. Very simple tests, one of which was conducted by the scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) have shown that this is an example of the "ideomotor" reaction, exactly the same psychological factor that explains the operation of the Ouija board, "automatic writing," and the various twitchings of the dowsers. In table-tipping, however, it involves more applied force, which is supplied by the multiple sitters arranged around the table.


GETTING CLOSER TO BUSINESS

A close friend who was present at TAM2, often has excellent observations to make on matters that concern the JREF. We share with you here a communication that he sent to us following his return from the Meeting:

Skeptics are interested in finding ways to get popular culture to appreciate the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Unfortunately, we are perceived as focusing mostly on debunking the silly stuff like UFOs, spoon benders, and psychic spiritualists. But most folks who don't know the first thing about critical thinking dismiss us by saying, "Of course those stupid things aren't true. Why do you bother wasting your time with it?"

That of course misses the point. What's important isn't that such beliefs aren't true, but rather why we believe such things, and how the same drivers behind such beliefs also cause us to deceive ourselves in areas more relevant to society, such as alt-med. One way of getting skepticism more into the mainstream is to identify such areas of interest and importance to mainstream media and society where critical thinking can make an important difference. One area, for example, is excessive environmentalism, or eco-religion. Through critical thinking and an understanding of what we know from evolutionary psychology and other innate psychosocial drivers, we can understand why such enviro-attitudes naturally exist, and thereby be better equipped to do something about it.

This understanding has been developed quite recently through advances in cognitive science, neurobiology, and genetic behaviorism.

During a panel talk at TAM2, another mainstream area was briefly discussed which might lend itself to a skeptical perspective, and thereby help bring skepticism into the mainstream: the spectacular failures of corporate governance which have come to light in recent years. The demise of such firms as Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco has much more to do with a failure of critical thinking than it does with willful fraud. All boards of directors and managers are famously prone to group think, self-deception, arrogance, prejudicial prejudgment, irrational self-justification, appeals to authority and tradition, and all the other drivers which also drive the beliefs in the silly stuff that we debunk. Boards of directors are supposed to be about "peer review," but virtually all boards haven't a clue about what this really means, or that they fail in it so miserably. Most business folks (Buffet and some others excepted) are clueless as to how the scientific method can lend itself to decision-making and governance in a corporate environment. Also related to this are the well-known cognitive self-deceptions rampant in the investment world (see Paulos's "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market" and "Fooled by Randomness" by Taleb). Businessfolk insist that they make good decisions "instinctively" and don't "lose the forest through the trees." But science has exploded such arrogant myths and attitudes for several hundred years now, and most haven't a clue about that or its application to any kind of decision-making.

I'm not talking about putting skeptics on every corporate board, though that might not be a bad idea. It seems to me that a Shermer or a Pinker could join forces with a business journalist sympathetic to the skeptical movement, do a little research on the current corporate governance fiascos and dialog, and write an Op-Ed for the Times or the [Wall Street] Journal or other prestigious paper, showing how what we know from skepticism is relevant here, and how the failures of corporate governance are no different from the excessive credulity in such things as alt-med and UFOs. In other words, introduce an epistemological perspective to the dynamics of corporate governance. There are several prominent members of the business community who embrace this thesis and could be interviewed for such a piece. This would not only serve as a wake-up call to the corporate world, but would also serve as an avenue for getting skepticism more into the mainstream generally.

Interestingly enough, a meeting of the JREF brain-trust following TAM2 brought some similar views to light before we'd even read these comments. For example, you'll see a difference in the presentation of this week's web page; the "bullets" and headings are only one way that we're trying to make information published here more accessible to readers, especially those who consult the archives. Also, we recalled that we've been very lax in making the text of my book, "An Encyclopedia of the Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural" easily available via our web page. That was a matter that somehow slipped through the cracks while we were busy with other projects. That will soon be fixed.

Concerning this contributor's comments on our pursuit of seemingly "silly" claims that seem beneath our notice, I'll only say that these claims are important for us to look into simply because they are they interface between serious thinking and blind acceptance; this is where we come to the attention of the public. Though we can easily recognize frivolous claims such as the use of magnets in the soles of shoes and looking for avalanche victims with a forked stick, often the public is unable to differentiate between what might be true and what most certainly is not. And, true to our calling, we just must investigate the simplest of claims so that we're not accused of ignoring them because we fear that they contradict science and rationality. That's a cry that goes up around us, all the time.

Thanks for your observations, my friend.


TALK TO YOUR CAT

This transcript from a CBS-TV news item was sent me recently. The message is clear.

You'd think you'd need a license to practice as a therapist. But the fact is, most state laws allow just about anybody to offer counseling services. Take psychotherapist Zoe D. Katze. "You had your cat certified by the American Psychotherapy Association?" CBS News Correspondent Jim Acosta asked the cat owner. "Correct," replied Steven Eichel, who is a psychologist.

All it took was an application and a doctored resume. Why the charade? To prove that it's too easy for amateurs to be certified as psychotherapists. Like one man who was caught flaunting false credentials in an undercover video. "It doesn't matter what their background is," noted Acosta.

"Apparently it doesn't matter what species they are," Eichel said.

The real experts warn it's up to patients to check credentials on state Web sites, and challenge treatment methods.

Yes, I'd say that's a good idea. But how do we protect ourselves against the homeopaths, the chiropractors who offer us blue light as a cure, and those who use "reflexology" to diagnose our illnesses? Myself, I'll opt for the cat....


WILL THEY NEVER LEARN?

We're told that a football team in the UK has called in a "white witch" to end its home-match losing streak. The Frome Town Football Club has had a miserable record during matches at its Badger's Hill home ground, and despite scoring 31 goals during away matches so far this season, they have only managed three goals at home. Now they've asked local witch "Titania" to lift the apparent curse. The author of books such as "Hocus Pocus" (imaginative title!) and "Love Elixirs" waved her hands about, then opined that the team was either under a curse, or just needed some encouragement. Now, that's what I call definitive.

Hold on! Haven't these folks heard about what happened to Reading Football Club over there when they called in someone with a much greater reputation, I'm sure, than Titania, the renowned spoon-bender — Uri Geller? As soon as this powerful agent showed up on the scene, eyes blazing and intent upon removing all evil influences that were causing Reading's problems, the club began its descent into oblivion, and we're told that Mr. Geller wasn't offering any refunds. Why, he didn't even give out any hand-waving!

Read the newspapers, folks, or at least refer to this page occasionally!


COMPULSORY FENG SHUI?

Reader Chris Wuestefeld writes:

As a longtime follower, I've seen you recount many cases in which governmental organizations have endorsed or relied upon superstitions. This didn't prepare me for a news account I just came across. I never expected that a governmental body as large or as close as the California State Legislature would fall into this. Yet it seems that a member of that body has introduced legislation that would have the effect of making feng shui part of the State's Building Standards Code — so each and every resident would have to waste resources in building their homes in accordance with feng shui's principles. From the article, which you can access at http://www.wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=36619:

"The structure of a building can affect a person's mood," states the proposed legislation, "which can influence a person's behavior, which, in turn, can determine the success of a person's personal and professional relationships. . . . The aim of feng shui architecture is to study how the environment in which people live may affect their lives and influence their quality of life."

Many times you [James Randi] have advocated the governmental regulation of psychics and the like. I believe that however well intentioned, this would be a mistake. Considering that the politicians who would create such regulations will include those like Assemblyman Yee, the sponsor of the above bill, it's clear to me that any such effort is as likely to achieve the opposite of its goal as it is to achieve success. Instead, we should look at ways to protect the public through the existing framework of fraud and truth-in-advertising legislation, and consider how the practitioners of these "arts," just like any other activity, should be held responsible for their actions.

Chris, you're missing an important aspect here. Yes, for a long time I have been agitating for the licensing of "psychics" and such mountebanks. However, I would insist upon a licensing procedure that involves appropriate testing of the applicant, in exactly the same way, and with exactly the same rigor that dentists, gardeners, and all professionals are tested in order to determine their qualifications for possessing a business license. There is no reason why the psychics should be exempted from such procedures — being licensed, and being tested — and yet it appears that allowing them to practice without any restrictions or questioning of their abilities, might be another of those faith-based initiatives....


PAYING FOR THE QUACKS

A reader who signs himself simply, "Bill," seems appalled at what gets accepted by certain health services:

I recently injured my back playing hockey, and my doctor prescribed physical therapy. I decided to go to a sports medicine clinic, and be treated by an Athletic Therapist. The therapist suggested that I check to make sure that my health plan at work would cover the cost, so I checked it out with my Human Resources department, and sure enough it doesn't. That doesn't bother me; I can certainly afford the treatment. However, the list of paramedical services that is covered is a little bit disturbing. I could go and see a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, or — get this — a Christian Science practitioner. I didn't even know what that last was until I did some searching of the web. After learning what they are, and what they do, I certainly wouldn't go to one.

It may be time to find another health plan, and let someone else subsidize the quacks. There was no mention of psychic surgery or covering the costs of healing crystals. . . .

Give them time, Bill.


THOSE CRAZY FINNS!

Reuters News Service tells us that in Helsinki, Finland, a service promising to answer people's prayers with a text message apparently sent by Jesus Christ, has been shut down after complaints by Finland's mobile services watchdog agency, MAPEL. The service offered answers from Jesus in response to a text message prayer at a cost of $1.52 per message.

It lasted less than a month after the service declined to name the company that provided the replies from Jesus. Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat, in the true spirit of skepticism and investigation, conducted a brief test of the service before it was shut down, by sending a prayer of desperation that received the answer: "Remember: unless you follow God's will much better than priests and pharaohs, you will not be allowed into the heavenly kingdom." Well, what did you expect for $1.52? Chimes and tap-dancing to go with it?


MAGIC CHARMS FOR PETS

Reader Mike Teague, who describes himself as an "Infidel from Vancouver, Washington," tells us:

Just thought I'd share a gem I discovered in a catalog on a flight to Vegas, a pendant you attach to your pet's collar to repel fleas and ticks. The copy reads:

WIN THE WAR AGAINST FLEAS AND TICKS! Simply attach the "CatanDog's" tag to your pet's collar and keep it on even when bathing your pet or when your pet is x-rayed by the vet. The aluminum tag is charged with fields of escalating waves that repel fleas and ticks and stop new ones from being hosted by your pet. Best when attached after flea bath, the tag becomes effective 7 to 20 days later. Contains no harmful elements for your pets or your children. Over 95% effective on dogs and cats of any age, weight, size and condition. Economical, and scientifically proven to last up to 2 years, after which it should be replaced.

"Charged with fields of escalating waves"? Wha? The company's website is: http://www.catandogs.net/english/

Mike, the part I like is the "95% effective." Does that mean that this miraculous device will kill 95 out of 100 fleas? Have they any idea of how many brand-new fleas can be generated by just five ambitious adults, in seven days, not to even think of twenty days?


OFF TO GERMANY AND...?

I'm scheduled to be in Frankfurt, Germany, at the end of September of this year, and in Padua, Italy, October 8th to 10th. I hope to fill in the spaces with other lectures, TV work, or whatever aids the cause. Part of aiding the cause consists of getting money for the JREF. I'll be needing fees for any such duties to help to support this Foundation. If you know of any possibilities for me to work in other venues while I'm there, please get in touch. I think that Denmark, Belgium, and the UK could use my talents — and there are persons in two of those countries who have challenged me to enter their territory, and have promised to sue me if I do so. Not one to dodge such an opportunity to come out swinging, I'd like to pick up that gauntlet. Any offers?


IN CLOSING...

Reader Wilf Campbell provides me with an appropriate closer for this week:

MY FATE KEEPS INTERFERING WITH MY DESTINY. THAT IS KARMA.

How wise were those ancients...!