March 30, 2001

Flat-Earthers, Rumpologists, Popoff Responds, Wise Haiku, Nutty Inventions, A Definition, Yet More Schwartz, and a Very Difficult Giraffe....

The classic Japanese painter and haiku master Buson (1716-1784) shows us that critical thinking and skepticism concerning magical claims goes far back into history and bridges across cultures. Today we wonder why psychics offer to sell us winning lottery numbers, rather than winning themselves. In Busonís day, things were simpler. We can only applaud his observation.

Thatís the kind of question we regularly ask here at the JREF, though not as poetically.....

It has been suggested to me that perhaps Dr. Gary Schwartz, who was featured on last weekís page here, will require a "triple-blind" protocol because his subjects all have second-sight. Good suggestion!

Dr. Schwartz has issued frenzied responses to my comments, which I am tempted to publish here, but that would make a very long document indeed. He is not a man of few words. In addition, he has chosen ó again ó to invent opinions and statements for me, and it wastes my time just refuting those canards. I notice that the man does not address the crucial question that I have raised: why does he conduct, by his own admission, "experiments" that are not double-blinded? If he were to begin his project by applying proper, secure, protocols, it would not be necessary to spend time and money gradually tightening up the controls. The results would be definitive, ready for publication, and peer-examinable. More importantly, the media would not be able to trumpet that a scientist from a responsible University has demonstrated that belief in life-after-death has been validated, even though that is mere media-puffery. But Schwartz opened that door, and they rushed through.

Let me suggest a parallel situation. You have a sturdy boat, but there are a number of leaks in it. Do you set to sea with only a few of the leaks repaired, so that you have to turn back and fix a few more when you begin to sink? If you repair all the leaks, right from the beginning, your voyage is completed efficiently and safely. You donít have to go back to port repeatedly to do what you knew from the start you would have to do.

Schwartzís method of edging up on doing real science, has one big advantage for him. It allows others to get excited and to assume conclusions that are not supported by the half-research he conducts. And that can attract funding and attention.

I have a proposition for the University of Arizona, expressed in a letter which I have sent off by post, today. They may be interested in a million-dollar grant (formerly a prize), which Schwartz can bring to them easily if he will submit his data for examination and if that data establishes what he thinks it does. Letís see if changing the language and the terminology will bring a better understanding of the million-dollar challenge we offer at the JREF. If Iíve not had acknowledgment from the U. of A. withing a month, Iíll post that letter here. The panel of highly-qualified experts I have suggested to the University is:

1. Stanley Krippner, Ph.D./psychology, Northwestern University. Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, Saybrook Institute, San Francisco. Member of the American Society for Psychical Research. Author and President of the Parapsychological Association, 1983.

2. Marvin Minsky, Ph.D./mathematics, Princeton. Mathematician, educator, author. Fellow of I.E.E.E., American Academy of Sciences, New York Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Science. Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, MIT.

3. Ray Hyman, Ph.D./psychology, Johns Hopkins. Professor emeritus of psychology, University of Oregon. Author and founding member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Consultant, U.S. Government, Department of Defense, CIA, inquiries into "remote viewing."

4. Michael Shermer, Ph.D./History of Science, Claremont Graduate School. Editor and publisher of Skeptic Magazine, columnist for Scientific American Magazine, multiple author, host of the Caltech Science Lecture Series.

This is our suggested qualified panel of scientists who have agreed with this Foundation to examine the data gathered by Dr. Schwartz. They are all Ph.D.s ó so that Dr. Schwartz will not feel he is involved with poorly-lettered academics ó they are informed, willing, specialists, who I believe will be acceptable to Dr. Schwartz. I, James Randi, would of course not be involved in any evaluations made by the panel.

Let me tell you, by a striking example, just why I believe that perhaps Gary Schwartz is not quite properly conducting this research. The following event was related to me by one who attended his "debate" recently. The "medium" Laurie Campbell did a demonstration for the audience. She asked, "Is there a John, or a Jonathan?" and she received a reply from an audience member who told her that "John" was the name of his deceased father. She followed up with, "And is there a 'bí?" To this, the man answered that his motherís name was Elizabeth, but that she was known as, "Beth."

In summing up Laurieís performance later, Dr. Schwartz dealt with the "anomalous" aspect of such readings to which he gives great attention, and thereby gave us an excellent idea of just how he derives his startling statistics. He asked for a show of hands from the audience. "How many of you have a father named John?" he asked. Several hands shot up. "And how many of you with a father named John, also have a mother named Elizabeth?" No takers, showing how unique and against-odds this double-hit of Laurieís had been....

Do I have to draw you a picture? Laurie didnít tell that man his fatherís name was John. The man told her! She just threw out two names, and required someone to pick up on either one of them. He identified with the name, and volunteered that it was his fatherís name. (In this game, the man is said to have "accepted" the name John.) And she never even said the name, "Elizabeth." The man volunteered that, too. Nor did she identify the "b" she guessed, with that manís mother! He filled her in on that, just as expected by the "cold readers."

Reconstruction of the event by Schwartz was faulty. Better questions directed at the whole audience would have been, "How many here can identify with the names John or Jonathan?" That would have produced a sea of raised hands. Remember, "John" or "Jonathan" is acceptable as a guess if it fits anyone! The chauffeur, a stock broker, son, father, uncle, grandfather, brother, friend, enemy, former classmate, lawyer, traffic cop, boss, poker partner, member of the car pool, just anyone! An appropriate second question would have been, "How many of those persons can also identify with a 'bí?" That "b" Laurie offered could begin a personís name ó or nickname ó first or last, or middle name, the name of a city, a street, ó or a pet. Or of a company, a profession, anything! I think weíd have had a pretty healthy correlation there. But then, Iím prone to think rationally.

So this is science, Dr. Schwartz? You really need more experience of the world, sir.

(Should the wording shown here be inaccurate, or should Dr. Schwartz not recall this event, I suggest that we might all be well served if we were to be given a copy of the official audio tape of this session. Though I have been dismissed as a person not qualified to receive such data, I'm sure that others are not so burdened. In any case, will anyone be offered an audio tape of the event? It exists, and it would bring a better understanding of the nature of Dr. Schwartz's handling and approach, I believe.)

To move on to a subject only slightly less silly, there is an International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), whose members ó said to be 3,500 strong ó believe that the Earth is actually shaped like a platter with a magnetic North Pole in the middle, and an infinite ring of ice as the South Pole. They reject science and Earth-satellite photos as part of an elaborate hoax, basing some of their arguments on the Bible. They also believe that the whole international space program is an elaborate fraud perpetrated by the world governments. They have of course embraced the currently popular fascination of Fox TV with the Moon Landing Fraud notion, which postulates that Man has never touched down on Luna. The Flat-Earthers claim that the public has been lied to and deceived for centuries.

The IFERS was founded in Zion, Illinois, at the turn of the last century, and moved its headquarters to England a few years later. Then the headquarters was relocated back to the USA, to the home of Charles Johnson, in the tiny town of Hi Vista, California, not far from Edwards Air Force Base, when Johnson became the group's president in 1972. He published a quarterly newsletter, The Flat Earth News, from his Mojave Desert home.

Johnson died this month at age 76 in Lancaster, California. It will be interesting to see whether the IFERS continues to exist, since it appears that many subscribers to the newsletter were only aboard for the entertainment value....

It was reported on March 21 that Sylvester Stalloneís mom, Jackie, had predicted that the film "Chocolat" would take the gold Oscar for Best Picture. Well, actually not Jackie, but her two Doberman Pinschers made the prediction. Itís too complicated to get into here. So much for precognitive pooches.

This is a slight change of perspective for Jackie Stallone. You see, currently sheís been predicting the future by reading other people's butt prints. True. Would I lie to you about such an important social/scientific leap forward? Jackie, who has previously been a trapeze artist, a hairdresser and a dermatologist, also claims to have psychic powers. Now sheís specialized as a Rumpologist, one who ó yes! ó reads the future (like palm-reading.... sort of) by rump-prints.

Now, I ask you, where else on the Internet can you get stunning stuff like this?

To those of you who have been following the "Sylvia Clock" on our opening page, and have asked about progress in the matter, I must report that thereís still no call from Sylvia Browne, and as of this writing, itís been more than three weeks! One of our readers, David Bryant, suggests a "Sylvia Browne acceptance pool," with participants guessing the number of days that will pass before she meets her obligation to be tested by the JREF. My suggestion: start with very large numbers.

Reader Tina Sena asks the question that so many of you have suggested:

Will Sylvia Browne step up to the challenge? Who knows? Why wouldn't she? Does she have something to hide? Do all POWERFUL luminaries have some secret oath they take that says they can go on talk shows and show-off, BUT ó they MUST not be challenged? They must not be proven true, false or otherwise?

I canít say, Tina. Ask Sylvia. Oh, I forgot, she doesnít seem to be available....

A reader sends in a response that he received from Peter Popoff, the televangelist I exposed as a faker rather thoroughly on TV some years back. As usual, PP is avoiding the tough answers and inventing facts to try explaining his tumble that resulted from my exposure of his high-tech tricks. What follows is his form-letter sent out in response to hard questions about me, and I note that this in-touch-with-God man doesnít even know how to spell my name. He begins by quoting scripture. Are we surprised at this? A common refuge of scoundrels.

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction." - 2 Peter 2:1

"Swift destruction"? Well, if Iím to be the subject of that divine threat, it appears that the deity involved is a bit slow. That was sixteen years ago. Hereís the response:

Dear <blank>: I understand your concern regarding what you have heard. Let me address some of the issues that you wrote me about. These issues were the result of an investigation that a magician, James Randy, did in 1985. For approximately one year he attended our crusades along with twelve to fifteen of his disciples who were men dressed up as women and women dressed up as men. They would claim to have various illnesses. They would come to my wife and ask for prayer all the while taping all of this.

Time out. I attended only two "crusades" of Popoff. They were a month apart. I couldnít possibly have survived a year of that nonsense. The most personnel I ever had with me was two. One was Don Henvick, who dressed up in drag, the other was Alec Jason, a volunteer technician. There were no others. The "taping" was done by the Popoff people, not by us, and was shown on their TV program as proof of genuine healing. We did no videotaping at all, though we audio-taped a couple of hours of Mrs. Popoff relaying "the word of God" to her husband via his concealed receiver.

One particular incident in San Francisco, which they have shown on television over and over again, was of a man dressed up as a woman who came to my wife ... Who was deceiving whom in this little charade? They have played the same investigation for almost 15 years now, and every time it is as if it were fresh breaking news, when in fact it all took place in 1985. This is the only investigation you ever hear about. There were never any charges or even allegations by any governmental agency. I personally have never been arrested or charged with any fraud.

True. An oversight. Not that we didnít try to arrange an encounter with justice for Reverend Popoff, but we were never able to find a politician brave enough to charge the Popoffs with fraud and/or receiving money under false pretenses. Theyíre back in business again, this time on the Black Entertainment Network.

... Thousands upon thousands of people around the world have found Jesus Christ through this ministry. Thousands more have been delivered, healed and blessed through this ministry....

"Healed"? Evidence, please. The JREF million-dollar prize applies to such healings, as well. If you get to it before Sylvia Browne snaps it up, that is.....

Some evidence just speaks for itself. I refer you to, where you will find the breathless account of one Cynthia Sue Larson, a writer who teaches "reality shifting workshops." (???) Cynthia attended a talk by Uri Geller, was charmed by him, and tells us that with her now-amplified knowledge of the real world, she knows that to make spoons bend, you have to ask them if they want to bend for you. You read that right, she tells us that you have to talk to them, to ask them if they want to bend for you! Thatís what I call shifting your reality. But read the full account for yourself, and youíll see how we should not be surprised at anything we read about these strange folks.

I urge you to also visit a web site ( that announces staggering breakthroughs in science, if you choose to believe their claims. You wonít believe the rubbish they advertise. They sell plans for building various wild pieces of crackpottery, along with a very few devices that actually will work, though the value of those is not always evident. One winner:

Ambient Power Module plans $20

Low cost circuit provides 9 watts of electrical power from free-energy in the air. Can replace batteries in any device or hook enough of them together to power an entire household. Complete plans for several different configurations. Patent copy included. Newly Revised.

There we have it, folks! Gee, put a few of these in your home and thumb your nose at the Huge, Rich, Thieving, Power Companies! And all from "air"! Does the U.S. government have any interest in this claim? If it works, I want it in use officially so that the environment will be saved. If it doesnít, I want this advertising stopped as a swindle. Hello? Washington?

Another winner:

G-Strain Amplifier plans $7

The transistorized gravity-strain amplifier derives power from the gravitational field manipulation of positrons. One embodiment generates 21 volts from 15v input =162% efficiency!

Hardly. Alternating voltage fed into a transformer ó which is not a new development ó will boost it to any voltage you want, with no moving parts. How the "162% efficiency" was arrived at may be through "alternative mathematics," but Iím not sure that manipulating positrons is legal, ethical, or moral. And I can only wonder what "gravity-strain" might be. But then, Iím not a scientist....

Temperature Wheel plans $7

Installs in a small pond or lake and uses temperature difference between air and water to spin. Low boiling point gases provide the locomotion. Produces high torque. No electronics or wiring needed. With a difference of 3 deg F, this device will run forever!

This is a toy which works, in the same way that the nitinol-metal toy developed by the U.S. Navy Lab, works. That "high torque" claim is ridiculous, since the thing barely moves at all, but this is a legit toy. Remember those glass "birds" that would dip endlessly into a glass of water, powered by a pink fluid that boiled up the long neck and then condensed? Same idea. That should be "low boiling-point liquid," but now Iím being picky.

Cold Fussion [sic] Cell plan $15

Build this low cost Patterson type cell to produce practically free-energy in abundance. The output of this device is hydrogen and steam that could be used to power a turbine or generator to provide large amounts of electrical power. Could also be used to heat your hot water heater and drastically reduce your electric bill!!

Danger, Will Robinson! Note the "practically-free" modifier. Sounds to me like these folks are a little "confussed." But next we get into the nitty-gritty stuff. Hereís what itís really all about. Cheat that Huge, Rich, Thieving, Power Company by direct theft of services. Read on....

Electric Meter Slowdown plans $20

Learn how others have been successfully tampering with their electric power meters to reduce their monthly bills. Written by a power company employee, this 18 page report explains all about electric power meters and how to slow them down or even stop them during slack usage times. BE WARNED! The USE of much of this information would be considered illegal and could subject the user to possible fines or other penalties.

Yep. Penalties like prison. But this is probably the closest that any readers of this crackpot website will ever get to "free energy." Human cupidity and credulity know no bounds.

An e-mail correspondent, Susan Ventrilla, sent me a lengthy question which I answered for her rather fully, and Iíll share that response with you here. Itís a pretty good question, involving the definition of the term "supernatural," as used in the JREF million-dollar challenge, and often offered as a reason for not taking up the challenge, though I can imagine other more serious reasons. Itís a question I'm often asked. Asks Susan:

Are there any guidelines for what would qualify as "supernatural"? Supernatural can't just mean "not consistent with currently known physical laws", since we're always discovering new ones. Gravity was pretty obvious from the beginning, but the first person to discover (and harness) electricity or magnetism probably looked like he was doing something supernatural. Was he?

No, because gravity, electricity, and magnetism can be observed, demonstrated and evaluated under stringent conditions, rules can be drawn up that describe their behavior, and those rules can be tested. No "psychic" powers have been so demonstrated. Until we have a phenomenon to be evaluated, we cannot draw up any rules/laws that cover it.

It seems to me that's a general (and insurmountable) problem for all your claimants.,

Not at all. None of them have yet been able to demonstrate under proper conditions. And they have ALL agreed, in advance, that the conditions are "proper."

If they can talk to the dead (and induce a response), or read people's minds, or bend spoons by thinking at them, maybe they're just discovering new physical laws.

Yes, of course. So as soon as they do any of these things, we can begin to try to explain them.

If, however, "supernatural" means violating physical laws, no claimant could ever collect.

Very true. But again, no phenomena, so no violations.

The laws of physics are just our guesses about how the universe acts.

No, they are not "guesses." They are conclusions arrived at by observation and experimentation. These laws are valid only so far as they withstand testing, and must always be changed or abandoned upon the presentation of contrary observations, better evidence, or a better "fit" of theory. Science does not discover a law right away. Science discovers a statement that appears to cover an observed phenomenon, then attempts to disprove that statement. If all observations subsequently made agree with that statement, and all attempts at disproving fail, that statement is accepted as a "law" ó but always subject to correction or change ó upon the presentation of contrary observations, better evidence, or a better theory.

If one of the laws gets broken, it's not because the universe acted the wrong way: it's because our guess turned out to be incorrect.

Agreed ó except that I would substitute "evaluation" or "conclusion" for "guess." I use the word "guess" to describe a rapid or casual estimate, a conclusion not fully thought out.

You can't really break a law of physics. You can only show that it wasn't a law in the first place.

Again, agreed. And this has happened countless times in history. However, each time it happens, and we correct our statements, we approach The Truth a little closer. We'll never get there, but in many respects, even now, we're so close, it doesn't matter. Round Earth vs. Flat Earth, origin of rain, value of pi, etc.

So if "supernatural" doesn't mean violating physical laws, and it doesn't mean discovering new ones, what does it mean?

Let's look at Webster. After all, we speak a language which, at best and in common with all languages, only approximates the expression of the thoughts we wish to transmit. We should be using words that we understand and that we use in very much the same manner. Let's see:

SUPERNATURAL, adj. 1. pertaining to or being above or beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law. 2. pertaining to or attributed to God or a deity. 3. preternatural. 4. pertaining to or attributed to ghosts, goblins, or other unearthly beings; eerie; occult.

Number 1 there should do it. (Though that phrasing is awkward, in my opinion.) By "natural law," Webster means, "derived from nature" as well as, "ethically binding." That seems not very helpful. But I think we can understand the "above or beyond what is natural or explainable by natural law" description. So, I'll say that "supernatural," in my definition, means, "describing an event or condition that has been shown to exist, but which cannot be explained or accounted for by established laws of science."

I just know that this statement will attract enthusiastic criticism, but I'll reserve for myself the right to refine my definition, upon the presentation of contrary observations, better evidence, or a better statement....! And by "established," I mean, "established, subject to refinement." There! But Susan closes with:

I can do a pretty good cups-and-balls routine. Would that count?

I donít think so, but how good is "pretty good"?

We got a big response to the "hikers" problem last week. The answer is arrived at without any math, though a few tried. Anastasia and Rachel meet somewhere along the road, but wherever it is, they are both at the same spot, so theyíre both closest to London! Some of you didnít notice that I said "within one kilometer." That means those who answered that Rachel would be closer to London by about one body-thickness, were not quite correct.....

This weekís puzzle is one that Martin Gardner gave me over the phone. Looked simple at first, but I admit that I did not solve it, after some 45 minutes or so of effort. I submitted it to my colleague Andrew, and he, too, gave up on it. I like to think itís because weíre very busy here at the JREF. This problem is one of those that is so simple once you see the solution....

By moving only one match, make the giraffe look elsewhere. I admit itís not much of a giraffe, but we do the best we can. No breaking matches, adding or subtracting matches. Tilting the head wonít do it. Ignore the match-heads; I didnít have any toothpicks, which would have worked just as well. The orientation of the animal can change, but he will be looking in a different direction. His body structure remains the same. The yeti here is obviously flabbergasted ó if not terrified ó by this problem. I hope you wonít be. But itís harder than you think....

My good friend, Dr. Douglas R.O. Morrison, who had me out to lecture at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked, passed away on February 25, 2001, after a short illness. He was a staunch defender of critical thinking, science, and rationality. I will miss him greatly.