February 4, 2005

Will This persistent Delusion Never Go Away?, The Vulnerable Never Learn, The Amazing Pritchard, An Epiphany, Superstition in China, That Lazy DNA, A Typical Example, Sticker Happy, Another Convert, and In Conclusion....


Table of Contents:


WILL THIS PERSISTENT DELUSION NEVER GO AWAY?

The small church of St. Agostino in Pantano, a poor agricultural suburb of the port of Civitavecchia, Italy, about 40 miles north of Rome, made international headlines in February of 1995, attracting thousands of curious visitors and charming the media when a Madonna statue was said to have shed tears of blood. This claim is, as we know, a rather common cause célèbre, and it faded into the rest of such mythology, mixed in with other objects — pictures or statues — that were weeping blood, tears, or oil, or simply rotating, and/or sundry glowing objects that the tabloids depend on for headlines when the other Madonna is behaving herself.

Get ready for another onslaught of "evidence," since the Civitavecchia diocese just ordered theologians, historians and doctors — all "experts" — to review the matter and prepare an official document. They did so, and not surprisingly concluded that the phenomenon has no ordinary explanation, thus encouraging the local shops and hotels to expect another onslaught of eager tourists.

Corriere, Italy's leading newspaper, said the report presented a careful analysis of all the testimony given at the time by awed parishioners, as well as "all possible explanations for the phenomenon." The paper said that it was the "unanimous opinion" of the "experts" that "in that corner of the Earth, at the gates of Rome, an event took place that has no human explanation and points at the mystery of the supernatural."

The 17-inch tall statue was said to have cried fourteen times, and Monsignor Girolamo Grillo, the local bishop, said that the statue cried blood while held in his hands. However, Grillo had a very cautious statement to issue about the event, perhaps recalling that so many other such wonders have been subsequently revealed as blatant hoaxes: "We have not proclaimed that the tear-shedding of the Madonna was miraculous, but the facts speak for themselves." Nice dodge, Monsignor!

But just what are those facts? Back in 1995, it was immediately found that the red liquid on the statue was male human blood, which might make a skeptic begin to wonder, but hardly slowed down the public enthusiasm for the miracle, of course. These wonders are not easy for ordinary mortals to understand, you see.

Some of us might ask why a DNA test-and-match was not performed with local males who had access to the plaster statue, particularly the statue's actual owner, Fabio Gregori, and his family. That would mean calling into question the honesty of certain persons, we were told, a distinct no-no in the religious hoax business. Ah, but other high-tech methods were diligently applied to this statue, showing that real science was at work to support the miracle. An X-ray and CAT scan showed no cavities that could house a device to squirt liquid, you see. Well, in my perverse way, I recall that back in the 1940s in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, the local priest at a church that had been visited by another weeping virgin miracle was discovered squirting K-Mart shaving lotion onto the celebrated statue from a concealed plastic water-gun. That holy figure, too, had been thoroughly examined by "experts" who fumbled the investigation grandly.

Some of us just never grow up, folks, and will continue to get goggle-eyed over such claims just because they're supportive of popular mythology. Medieval thinking is still in vogue, it seems. And, we must ask, what expertise do "theologians and historians" have to judge such matters? Lots of anecdotal material? Appeals to local pride? And those medical doctors, who might have used their authority — if they were given any — to perform the appropriate and obvious tests, simply failed to do so!

Ten years after the event, it's a bit late for launching another investigation, a fact which suits the needs of the miracle-mongers quite well. The Bleeding Virgin of Civitavecchia is bound to become an accepted wonder of Christianity, I'm sure....


THE VULNERABLE NEVER LEARN

Reader "Steve" in Sydney, Australia, tells us:

There is a TV show currently running here in Australia called "Missing." This is a documentary showing the day-to-day activities of the police and other departments endeavoring to find people who have been reported missing by relatives or friends. As you can imagine, the people who have agreed to appear are revealing a devastating part of their lives to public view, I suppose in the hope of helping find their loved ones with the exposure on television.

But the disturbing part: during one of the interviews, the mother of a girl who has been missing for almost twenty years was discussing the distress she suffered on a daily basis since her child had disappeared. Almost as an aside she mentioned that she went to tarot readers and psychics as they gave "some hope" about the whereabouts of her daughter. She smiled faintly and muttered something about it helping.

Just after this, the results of a DNA test that had been performed on unidentified human remains discovered some 15 years ago, came back positive, proving that the woman's daughter had in fact died. As the remains were skeletal the actual time of death could not be determined, but a murder investigation has now been opened so I would presume they think she was killed close to the time of her disappearance.

One can only wonder what the tarot readers, etc., had been telling this poor women for all those years and how much they made from her. It is a disgusting and callous activity that should be exposed for what it is — a scam to relieve vulnerable people of their hard-earned money.

Steve, we cannot assume that these "psychics" are knowingly providing false information to their clients. Many of them — not the thriving professionals, mind you! — really believe that they have paranormal powers; these are the sort of "honest-but-deluded" people who apply for the JREF prize. Anyone with a shingle out advertising magical powers, is likely to be a scammer, but there are some who actually cannot evaluate their own abilities. As I've said before, give me an out-and-out fraud, and I can handle it; the innocently self-deluded are another matter.


THE AMAZING PRITCHARD

Two years ago we were fortunate enough to have a summer intern working here at the JREF, our excellent friend Jonathan Pritchard. He came to us from Berea College in Kentucky, the excellent school that I've visited often. Jonathan not only served us here in Florida in 2003 and 2004, but attended two TAMs as well. Many of you will have met him in Las Vegas. This young man is not only knowledgeable about magic, but can show you a few remarkable foot-flingings as a result of his enthusiastic pursuit of the art of swing-dancing. Many a Florida maiden has been twirled about by Jonathan, and we were inundated with visiting female admirers all during his stay with us.

Just received: a welcome note from Mr. Pritchard following his return to Berea after TAM3....

I wanted to let you know I did my presentation yesterday, for the culmination of my January class, and I got an A for the project. I gave a 45-minute presentation and had a Q&A session afterwards. My faculty sponsor was teaching a class on dinosaurs, so his students seemed to be a good audience for my talk. Most of the kids were on the boat with me, but there were a couple that were definitely upset with me for challenging their beliefs. I spoke on the science of evolution, and discussed the essence of the "evolution debate" from two opposing viewpoints; an empirical approach vs. a fanciful wishful thinking approach to life.

My professor said that he was impressed with my presentation, and that he wasn't used to kids my age being able to handle such a wide variety of information with as much ease as I displayed in my talk. That was good news! I wanted to let you know that TAM3 was productive and helpful in getting me through school. Thought you'd be interested in hearing how it went.

Oh yes! Just another small win for our cause, though Jonathan didn't need any convincing about the rational approach to thinking, I assure you. That diffuse light you see all around my office is partly the glow of satisfaction, and partly pride. Makes a wonderful source of illumination, don't you think?


AN EPIPHANY

Reader Michi Dewhurst, in Bielefeld, Germany, has made an important discovery. The verb tenses used here may be a bit confusing, but I think you'll understand as you read. Writes Michi:

I have been an avid fan of Sylvia Browne's for about 10 years, since seeing her often on the Montel Williams Show in the UK where I lived for a long time. Since returning to my home in Germany I have been talking and thinking about little else but Sylvia. She has given me hope in thinking that there is something after life on earth and that the life on earth is just the hell we have to go through before being rewarded with a beautiful life somewhere else. I want to believe that my beloved dead Granny is my spirit guide and looks after me and guides me and protects me.

In the last few days I have accessed [Sylvia's] website and I have been reading it and have come to the conclusion that she is a truly wonderful person and I would love a personal reading, even though it costs 700 Dollars I can ill afford at the moment, plus I was going to order her books.

In connection with Sylvia (via Google) I have stumbled across your website this morning at 8 o'clock and I am still reading it at the moment (Commentary). I am more than a little dismayed and shocked about what I have been reading on your site. I have always thought me a rational but open-minded person....sometimes skeptical but often believing and trusting in the good in people, but after reading yours and your guests comments I had to come to the conclusion that if Sylvia is indeed refusing to take your test, that she must be a fake.

I cannot understand that if someone is a genuine psychic that they would refuse to have this tested. I would pay YOU a million if you could testify to my genuine quality. But now I feel so incredibly sad and lost that I have to rethink my beliefs that I thought I'd write to you and let you know.

But still I thank you for your years of dedication in routing out the fakes, bad lot and liars. I do not know how my findings today will affect me later on, I have to do a lot of thinking now, but I still want to thank you for making me rethink at all.

I will go on reading further now. My goodness, there is a lot to get through! All the best to you.

I answered Michi:

Michi: it is always difficult to respond to a letter of this kind. I cannot give you an equally easy substitute for your former beliefs, but I can encourage you to face the reality that you now find before you.

Life-and-death is something we have to confront eventually, of course. I've had to do it several times myself, and I've never found it easy. We lose friends and family members, we sorrow over their loss, and we force ourselves to continue. I think the only way we can compensate for such losses, is to recall and to cherish the memories we have of previous times, the joys and the laughter that made these people so valuable to us, and the gifts that they left behind for us.

People like Sylvia Browne are vultures who are on the watch for vulnerable people who should be better informed about the real world and how it actually works. Our purpose here at the JREF is to inform those people and thereby protect them from the disappointment and disillusionment which invariably awaits them when they invest in the schemes that the "psychics" offer them.

You are certainly not the only one to express this sort of reaction to me, nor will you be the last. To accept the fact that no one lives forever, either here on Earth, or in some other "dimension," is not easy, but, as people often report to me, there is a feeling of great relief and release when that decision is made. I sincerely urge you to follow that direction, and I assure you that I would like to hear from you along the way as you make your journey.

I think that Michi is fortunate to have had this epiphany before she invested in a Browne "reading," and I believe that she will make the transition well, and that others will follow her lead. This is what the JREF is all about, and why we're here.


SUPERSTITION IN CHINA

Reader "Mike" amplifies a recent item:

Regarding the note about blood type determining character in China, it's not only common, it often determines your employment. I've been working for a human resources company in China for a while and cannot convince them that this is unnecessary information. Some clients may specify which blood types they will accept for employees in certain positions.

I've gotten them to loosen up a little when it comes to rating an applicant's physical attractiveness, but I know I'll never get them to drop the blood type question. It's been part of the culture so long that it's not really a belief; it's more of a custom that is given high priority. Many of them don't actually believe it.

Mike, don't forget that here in the USA, we once had a president who followed the instructions of an astrologer, that Canada had a Prime Minister who regularly visited a spiritualist for advice, that today the U.K. has a couple living at #10 Downing Street who have any number of superstitions and "psychics" going for them, and that El Al, the Israeli airline, used to hire their employees based on astrological signs — and may still do so, for all I know. The government of the vast continent of India is highly influenced by gurus and astrology... I could go on, but I think you get the point: nonsense is an equal-opportunity affliction.


THAT LAZY DNA

Reader M. Alice has stumbled on a great biological breakthrough:

I thought you would enjoy knowing that there's a website that offers to "activate" your "de-activated" magical ten strands of DNA that humans usually don't use (or possibly don't have), giving you ultra super powers! It will also help teenagers with their SAT scores! All for the low, low, price of 100 bucks a session. You don't even have to leave the house for this to happen...the owner of the site (a Mr. Toby Alexander) will utilize remote viewing to change your DNA structure.

Wait...wouldn't that be "remote surgery?" Or does he only VIEW my DNA from far away? Does the actual remote operation cost extra?

Randi: Go to www.dnaperfection.com for the whole silly story, and don't miss the founder's qualifications, which are to be found at www.dnaperfection.com/pages/5/index.htm. Be sure you're seated, first, so you won't hurt yourself as you fall down laughing. Our reader continues:

My favorite part of this site is all about someone the owner calls "Indigo Children"...who are some kind of cross between prophets, aliens and Level 8 scientologists or something. Here is the scientific self-test to determine if you are an Indigo Child:

Are you always searching for your greater purpose in life but feel like the world isn't set up for your kind?

Do you sometimes feel wise beyond your years?

Do you have trouble conforming to the ways of society?

Do you feel out of place in today's world?

Do you perceive the world very differently than most people around you?

Do you have strong intuition about certain things that most others do not?

Do you often feel misunderstood when you try to talk to people about what's real?

Are you a truth seeker?

Do you feel like you were born to accomplish a special mission in life?

Do you feel isolated and alone in your beliefs?

Misunderstood by family?

Do you feel anti-social unless you are with people of like mind?

Are you emotionally sensitive?

Did you have a difficult childhood?

Do you often feel disempowered by too much authority?

If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, congratulations. You're the average American teenager or conspiracy theorist. Don't bother sending any queries to this man, Mr. Randi, as he has stated on his site that those who don't believe his claims or want proof are advised to find some other website with which they "resonate" more strongly. I took his advice and headed on over to resonate with the JREF instead.

P.S.: Why are specially-powered people always some shade of purple? I hate purple. Why can't they be a super-advanced shade of salmon? Magical Maroon? Wisdom Walnut? Prophet Puce?

Sorry, I haven't answers to the color problem. But Silly Saffron, Brainless Brown, and Witless White spring easily to mind....


A TYPICAL EXAMPLE

There has been much discussion, both by e-mail and on the forum, about the fact that every now and then the JREF has to inform applicants that in our opinion, they should seek professional counseling because it appears to be evident that they're challenged emotionally and psychologically. Some have said that we don't have the right to make such a decision. I can tell you, anyone who gets to actually see the applications that come in, quickly changes their mind. I provide here an example of one that recently arrived. I believe you'll see that this person makes very little sense, and that it would require copious exchanges of mail even to determine what he's actually trying to say. I'll add that this is not the first correspondence we've had with him; telephone calls, e-mail, and posted letters have all been as vague and difficult as what you'll see here.

I repeat what I've said before: this is not an attempt to make fun of an applicant. It's an attempt to give you an example of what we're up against, every day. And, professional clinical psychologists to whom we've submitted this sort of material, have provided us with opinions about these people that back up our evaluations.

What follows is supposed to be — by specific instructions outlined in the challenge rules — no more than two paragraphs. Also, it arrived without notarization, which is also clearly required. You see it here with two added inserts written in on the sheet by the applicant (those are shown in italics and brackets) and we've retained the original spelling, numbering, and punctuation, though it's been made far more readable for you in this corrected format. The applicant, a 22-year-old male in New York state, writes:

My presentation will last anywhere from 30-60 minutes and what it consists of is basically me and 2- preferably 3 judges will sit in a pitch black room isolated from outside noise (ex. Car horns, phones, and other people) could be anywhere you choose just must be completely stagnant-STILL. Windows in the room are optional if I would to have a preference they would not be there, so there is no confusion with factoring in the window could be a possibility for the Images or small wind gusts. So eliminate them for best possible presentation. The hour which this presentation will take place in is anywhere from 8pm to midnight-3am whatever as long as it is night fall there will be no problem.

IF possible 1 of the 3 judges will have that day just a few minutes ago upon being a part of this presentation, will have just got back from the gym or working out. I want this judge to be completely exhausted to the point where he/she will sit on the couch [we will be sitting on the floor] and crash there. 2-3 hours of dumbbells and cardio will do the trick and this person is not a gym rat or very healthy to begin with. When he/she works out on this day it will be for the 1st time in 3-5 weeks, or months or years. Sometimes these muscles that are stimulated "resting" pick up on the small wind vibrations the ghosts leave when they fly threw your arm or leg easier.

What the ghosts first look like are, lets see.......go in a dark room with some moon light not -heavy light- and release 5-10 fruitflys or standard flys and focus on a painting in front of you, you see the flys to your right and left...you almost double take cause of them cutting the darkness with their streak of motion and yet there is no image.

In this presentation after 10 minutes or so they (the ghosts) will become more able to be seen, they are like a fuzz, like the predator-the movie- when he is transparent you know its there but its clear.

The success of my presentation will be when the following are completed to the fullest degree.

(1) The ghosts will line up single file and One by One they will kneel in front of the 3 Judges. They are slightly transparent but still able to be seen...look like fuzz...But with the single file they will take the place of the person in front of them and Like my old Nintendo they will burn the image [of their presence] into your perception cause they keep repeating it with there single file kneeling. They have no eyes but you will see the outline of their head as they will be 1 foot away from you looking into yours.

(2) You announce out loud (you can do it with a thought in your head but for this presentation please cast all directions out loud) Example: "Please Samantha move left for me." "Please Samantha move right for me." "Thank you Sam." And then Sam will fly threw your arm or go left as you kindly asked of her.

(2) I will get them to Physically rub your leg.

If a ghost were to fly through your arm lets say, you would feel it with your arm hair. This process takes l-2 seconds. We want you to lay back, and for one of the ghosts to actually spend 10-15 seconds consintrating on one part of your body lets say your thigh and get you to feel a rubbing action. PLEASE WEAR SWEAT PANTS. Sometimes when they rub they create a warm sensation, but rare.

These would constitute as a successful presentation. I see no one has passed your preliminary tests yet so I am very excited to meet with your foundation. We will do lunch and talk about it and then off to my presentation or forget lunch and dive right in.

Thank you for your time Sir, I will be waiting for your reply.

I have no qualifications in psychology nor in psychiatry, but in my opinion this young man is delusional, perhaps dangerously so. He is mistaking garbled sensory input for actual images of reality, and taking any impression he picks up as peripherally-sensed "ghosts." Joan of Arc, Padre Pio, and other "visionaries" probably suffered from the same delusions.

We're still trying to get a coherent statement from him concerning a simple protocol, but I think we cannot reasonably expect this to be produced.


STICKER HAPPY

Reader Randall Wald has a comment:

I'm not sure whether you read tech news sites, but I think the evidence strongly suggests that Slashdot has jumped the shark. Lately, they ran a post on a company called BatMax (link: www.batmax.com/. BatMax produces a sticker which, according to their claims, extends your cell-phone battery life. How does this work? Through some sort of "nanoceramic material extracted from natural stone." Seriously, reading their "technology overview," I was surprised the word "quantum" wasn't thrown in.

The frightening thing is that the same Slashdotters who read this article and ask "I wonder if this works for laptops too" also reply to any sort of biotechnology posts with fears that "scientists shouldn't play God" and that "pretty soon, this research will lead to terrorist-generated superbacteria." It's sort of remarkable how people who have experience in one field (such as computing) can be so ignorant in other fields, even when the fields are closely related (such as electrical engineering).

The most important aspect of the true scientific outlook on reality is that all knowledge is provincial and that all experts can be wrong; people who think their experience in one field directly translates to other fields completely miss the point. The only bright point about the Slashdot article is that around two-thirds of the comments lambasted the original poster for not recognizing the hoax. Perhaps there is yet hope.

Perhaps.... Randall, this is the same sort of crap that was used a few years ago to sell similar stickers to users of cell phones, to protect against deadly RF emissions! But several other readers spotted yet another Equally Stupid Sticker Scam for us:

This is advertised as a new "money-saving" device for your car, the "MPT SmogBuster Fuel Disc," a quarter-size piece of simple plastic being promoted internationally through multilevel marketing, the sales technique that relies on layers of distributors. The stickers retail for US$299 each, but those who persuade others to sell them get a discount! Upper-level members of the scheme have to buy a minimum of ten SmogBusters for about US$1,400.

This thing is supposed to be taped or glued to the bottom of your cars gas tank, after which, they say, you'll find a significant increase in gas mileage and an improvement in air quality. They claim it "sends holographic frequencies into the gas tank and changes the molecular structure of the gasoline." Ah, I was wondering at the deep scientific background for this wonder. How could I have doubted that it was there? I'm sure audiophiles who buy super-science power cords and speaker leads, will also invest in these stickers.

A suggestion: we should prepare a set of our own stickers, to be permanently applied to the forehead of anyone who is naïve enough to use either of these scam products. Here it is:


ANOTHER CONVERT

Reader Lissa Hayes tells us:

I don't know if you remember me. I wrote to you in December, 2003, thanking you for speaking out about faith healers. I just wanted to thank you for also speaking out about alternative/metaphysical health "alternatives". I was a little confused about these practices and used to think that they might be viable alternatives to conventional, scientific medicine. After investing in homeopathy for more than 3 years, I realized that it had only "worked" because I believed it would. The moment I stopped believing, it stopped "working."

This was also the case with products manufactured by Gero Vita. Last week, I also finally had the courage to ditch chiropractic for the same reason that I ditched the other 2 practices. Besides, by then, I had spent nearly $5,000 on these practices; and I was in danger of losing legitimate health insurance if I didn't quit.

Do you know if it is only unethical for a "doctor" to ask for the names, addresses, phone numbers and health histories of people who are not currently his patients? Because that is what my chiropractor was doing. That is another reason I gave that up, besides the additional pain I suffered as a result of unnecessary adjustments to a reasonably normal spine — there is nothing like good, old-fashioned exercise and healthy eating in relieving back pain; and that's how I've relieved mine. There was also the fact that he wouldn't let me leave without writing a success story for him to possibly publish to show other patients, even when my condition actually worsened under his care. Thankfully, with the passage of time, it is returning to normal.

I have a really good friend who is proof of the excellent effect of a perfectly healthy diet on a person's overall physical and mental well-being. His mother never let him eat anything unhealthy; and he continues to take excellent care of his health through diet, exercise, and prayer. He's had no need for alternative medicine in any form. Perhaps I should follow his example.

I don't know if any part of this testimony will help to convince others of what you've been saying for years; but, if you think it will help, you may use it.

Lissa, I suspect that your friend could have skipped the last of his three approaches to good health, but I won't get into that, right now. Ah, I see that you added:

I just wanted to add to my reasons for leaving chiropractic care for the birds. (I would have said this in my earlier message to you; but I just received confirmation of my suspicions two days ago.) You see, I got caught up in the Holiday frenzy of chiropractic business and sent gift cards for free massages (compliments of my chiropractor's office) to my friends and my mom. My mom immediately saw the sales gimmick for what it was and automatically turned down the massage, which was ok with me because I could see the real reason for the gift cards by then, too.

However, two of my other friends decided to take advantage of the offer and went for a massage this week. Instead of the massage, though, they got the "doctor's" sales pitch. Before the receptionist would schedule appointments for their massages, the doctor had them filling out paperwork (including insurance information, even though he doesn't accept insurance). He had them each undergo x-rays and a preliminary chiropractic exam, even though they previously mentioned already having a chiropractor much closer to where they live. Then he had the nerve to tell them that their chiropractor, who had had much more experience than mine, wasn't doing them any good and that they would have to drive 25 to 30 miles, twice a day, 3 days per week for treatment in his office. And he didn't even tell them what it would cost them.

So they tried to arrange to call and set up an appointment for a massage when they knew they could find a caregiver for dependent adults who live in their home. But the receptionist didn't want to wait until they could make the necessary arrangements, saying that she needed to book the appointment immediately and that the dependent adults could wait in the lobby during the massages, when these adults don't even do well leaving home in the first place. I'm sorry if I sound a little upset; but this "doctor" infuriates me. The AMA hasn't even so much as heard that he exists, even though it knows about the existence of my former homeopathic doctor. I just hate to see "doctors" like this taking advantage of so many people and not having to answer for it because what they do isn't illegal, only unethical. Perhaps, though, the adage, "what goes around comes around" will prove true in this case.

I just learned last night that most people who try to take advantage of the free massages at my (former) chiropractor's office actually end up paying for the massages themselves. My stepdad told me that he found out that the chiropractor adds the cost of the massage to these people's bill during the course of future treatments, so they don't actually receive free massages after all.

Well, Lissa, there is some good news from Florida in regard to chiropractic. (See www.randi.org/jr/010705an.html#2) The Florida Board of Governors, perhaps due to worldwide interest in their situation, decided last week, voting 11:3, to defeat the proposal for a school of chiropractic on their campus. One commentator said: "Scientific method has won over propaganda, promotion and financial interests."


IN CONCLUSION...

Next week, Bubble Theory, the British Columbia Psychic, and Tony Blair is actually Bill Gates...!