April 1, 2005

Capitalizing on Tragedy, Scientific Integrity Demonstrated, Kreskin Is Not a Breakfast Cereal, Ghost Story, Perceptions Revisited, A Silent Red Elk, An Interesting Phenomenon, Volunteer Call, Seeing Beauty In the Real World, Is Penta Water Finally Ready?, and Annual Pigasus Awards Announced.

Table of Contents:


Reader Brad Tittle, who signs himself as "cynically depressed," writes:

Listening to the discussion of Terri Schiavo's existence, I wonder if they couldn't use you in their analysis. When I hear people say "Look, she responded to us entering the room," I immediately think of UFO's, pixies, and angels.

I am also reminded of the Reverse Speech fanatics who hear things that just aren't there.

It also reminds me of data dredges and epidemiology. You have multiple stimuli and multiple responses. If you apply the statistics, you will find correlation, even if there is no causation.

Brad, we were inundated by reports that there were responses seen from Terri Schiavo, and even her father said during an interview following the special act of Congress that brought fleeting hope to those advocating keeping her body "alive," that he'd "spoken to Terri by phone." Note that he didn't say he spoke "with" her, just "to" her. That meant someone held the phone to her ear, and she reacted — as she did to most stimuli — by making unformed sounds and moving her head. Terri Schiavo died long ago, if living involves being conscious — which requires a cerebral cortex; she had none. Her reactions to light, movement, and sound, were attributable to simple reflexive brain stem and forebrain functions, not to cognitive processes. According to neurologists, such reflexive activities are neither conscious nor signs of awareness. Without cognition, there is no awareness.

A rhetorical question: From 1912 to 1946, as an experiment, a famous French physiologist kept tissue from an embryonic chicken heart "alive" in a saline solution, supplying proper nutrients at the right temperature and removing waste products. The tissue was allowed to die after that time, having proven that with an expected life of only three to five years, it could be kept functioning — "alive" — perhaps indefinitely. Was that a "living" chicken for those 34 years, and was cutting off the nutrients an act of execution? Terri Schiavo was also kept "alive" by heroic means, for fifteen years. Her nutrients were cut off, and her body died. I think you can see the obvious question….

Please, don't write accusing me of lacking respect for the human who was once Terri Schiavo; nothing could be further from my true feelings on the matter. I am deeply grieved and dismayed that we, as a community, could admit and accept that she died fifteen years ago, that we kept her tissue functioning for all that time, and then opted to starve her body until it failed. I could do nothing, in the face of the present attitudes and philosophies of those who administer our laws. We were all victims of this embrace of irrationality, and we must all take responsibility for the pain that the Schiavo family suffered because we encouraged their groundless hopes and their rejection of reality. They — understandably — clung to every hint that Terri might still have been "there," because that's what they wanted — needed — to be true. It was not true.

We have to grow up, at some point. We had this opportunity to move in that direction, and we failed.


Reader Graeme Humphries has good news:

I just saw an article in "Wired" that is a nice illustration of what you've always said about scientific attitudes towards change vs the attitudes of all the woo-woo believers out there: www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,66995,00.html?tw=rss.TOP

It talks about how new experiments in plant breeding may have disproved parts of Mendel's Law, which has been used for around 150 years as the basis for plant breeding and genetics. To quote the article:

In the Purdue experiment, researchers found that a watercress plant sometimes corrects the genetic code it inherited from its flawed parents and grows normally like its grandparents and other ancestors.

Scientists said the discovery raises questions of whether humans also have the potential for avoiding genetic flaws or even repairing them, although they said the actual proteins responsible for making these fixes probably would be different in plants.

The article is short, but I was just struck by how different in attitude scientists are, to religious leaders. These researchers have discovered something that may disprove a long-standing scientific theory, and "Wired" reports that "Other scientists described the results as 'spectacular.'" When's the last time you heard any religious leaders proclaiming that disproof of their beliefs was "spectacular"?

In any case, it's just another small example....


Getting into the Michael Jackson Circus parade with Geller and sundry other semi-celebrities, The Amazing Kreskin (remember him?) has offered this on his web page: www.amazingkreskin.com/pred_jackson.htm. Try this on for championship waffling and escape hatches. And note the last paragraph, in which he fumbles a word to provide us at least some hope. Here's the body of the prediction:

Letter to Attorney reveals Jackson will be found NOT GUILTY

On Tuesday morning, March 8, 2005, at 2:00am, on WOR-AM, The Joey Reynolds Show, The Amazing Kreskin made public his prediction that Michael Jackson would be found not guilty. Kreskin made it clear that he is not expressing his own opinion as to the guilt or otherwise of Mr. Jackson and that such would be, in his opinion, irresponsible in a public format. Although Kreskin is convinced that the jury's decision will be to find him not guilty, Jackson will not be able to prove his innocence.

Several days prior to his announcement, in a letter to Jackson's Defense Attorney, Thomas Mesereau, Kreskin warned Mesereau about the perils of introducing hypnosis into his defense plan. It had been made public that amongst possible witnesses for the defense would be psychic Uri Geller. Geller claims to have "hypnotized" Mr. Jackson a few years ago and elicited comments from Jackson (while under "hypnosis") that he was not guilty.

If such "evidence" (hypnosis) were brought to the case, Kreskin could be called in as a witness for the Prosecution because of his edibility to demonstrate that a supposedly "hypnotized" person can lie and distort the truth if he so desires. Such a demonstration could seriously damage Jackson's credibility.

As if Uri Geller would ever be called in from Woo-WooLand to be asked about NeverLand! But this news is encouraging in one respect; it appears that Kreskin is offering himself up to any available Hannibal Lector as a human sacrifice.... I can't believe that he actually put this grammatical blunder up on his own page....


Reader Richard P. Mikat, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, provides us with this heart-breaking story of dashed expectations of heavenly validation:

I've been a long-time admirer of your work and greatly enjoyed meeting you at TAM3. I thought you might be entertained by a ghost story from my past.

Several years ago, I lived in Provo, Utah — home of the Missionary Training Center for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). One evening, I passed a group of missionary trainees (about 10) on an upper-level floor of a building. Groups of missionaries were a common site around Provo, but on this occasion the group looked particularly interesting. They were crowded around a window, wide-eyed with mouths hanging open. In fact, it looked as if they had seen a ghost. As I approached, I asked what they were looking at. They answered, "Spirits circling the spire of the temple."

Mormon temples are grand structures that are externally lit at night — giving them an appealing glow. The Provo temple was easily viewable from the building we were located in, and was lit at the time.

I approached the window and several of the missionaries made room so I could have a look. There in front of me were multiple ghostly bodies, translucent and giving-off an eerie orange glow. They moved in a synchronous way and appeared to be dancing in a circle around the temple spire.

I then said, "Yes, it could be spirits circling the temple — or it could be the gasses coming out of those vents." I pointed to a building directly between us and the temple. The building had vents on its rooftop and the rooftop was lit with orange flood lights. Gentle breezes produced an interesting movement pattern for the vented gasses.

At this pronouncement, the missionaries all leaned forward in unison to get a better look. They then, also in unison, stood up straight, sighed/moaned, and walked off disappointed — but hopefully a little wiser.

I fear not necessarily "wiser," Richard, but only more determined. Mormons believe very firmly in spirits. According to their founder Joseph Smith, spirits have three forms: pre-existence, in the human body while alive, and in life after death. Everyone, he taught, has had a pre-existence and will have an after-death existence. A pre-existent spirit must enter a human body and live on Earth before it can go to heaven. It must of course perform righteous acts while "upon Earth" to get there. Some of those acts include serving on a two-year mission, acting as a ward bishop, or performing other priesthood functions. A woman, however, has a far more difficult task; to be assured a place in the highest level of heaven, she must marry a worthy priest in a temple and perform her duties and callings at home and in the church. That's why in the days of polygamy, a young girl often would readily marry an older man as long as he held one of these high offices even if he already had several other wives. In heaven, as on Earth, it appears that rank counts. Mormon women have no way of their own to reach heaven except as servants and have to be sealed to a husband to insure their admittance. That's why Mormon women often push their husbands to take on high church positions, temple assignments or other duties, so they may be "pulled through" to higher levels of heaven along with their husbands. Nag, nag, nag....


Reader Beth Morgan of Palo Alto, California, had a veil lifted from her eyes....

Another story that goes to your commentary about perceptions. In high school I lived in southern New Mexico. Yes, near Roswell, so talk of aliens was plentiful. One night as I was stargazing I saw the most amazing thing. A bright light, like a very large shooting star, shot horizontally across the sky and then stopped, raised up a few inches, and continued shooting on its way! I was flabbergasted, so much so that the next day I had to confide in my Mom what I'd seen, because I just wanted to get someone else's perspective. She was the right person to ask, it turns out. She was a Department of Defense scientist working at the White Sands Missile Test Range, and she said, "Oh, that was just a missile. They were running tests last night." I realized that so many of these so-called alien sightings in our area must be things just like that, missile tests, experimental planes, etc., but unfortunately most people don't live with a DOD scientist who can set them straight!

Beth, the more we look into these reports of UFOs, ghosts, and other phenomena, the more we recognize that only occasionally are we get lucky enough to have someone on hand with some specialized knowledge that might resolve our puzzlement. Of course, if that reference source is not on hand, we can always go to www.randi.org, www.skeptic.com, or www.csicop.org, can't we?


Reader Rob Justice, psychologist of Royal Oak, Michigan, tells us of how he tried to inform a retailer:

I teach psychology, and greatly appreciate all the work you do. You're a lighthouse on the high seas of ignorance. Recently, while at a national grocery store, Whole Foods Market in Troy, Michigan, I noticed they sold homeopathic remedies. I spoke with the manager, and she directed me to the Whole Foods Market website at www.wholefoods.com so that I could voice a complaint.

I sent a letter, below, indicating the ineffectiveness of homeopathy, and even cited your website for further information. I received a response from someone with the alias "Red Elk" (below), who told me that they would forward my message to their regional coordinator. It has been ten days and I'm not surprised (based on your experiences) to have not gotten a reply.

Perhaps posting my letter and "Red Elk's" response in your weekly newsletter could help spread awareness, and perhaps encourage others to make a complaint with Whole Foods for their choosing to put profit above truth.

Rob wrote to Whole Foods:

Subject: Product questions and/or concerns for your local store.
Store: Troy, MI

I recently noticed that Whole Foods is selling homeopathic remedies. Repeated double-blind placebo-controlled scientific testing clearly shows that homeopathic remedies work no better than if a person is being given water. Homeopathy simply doesn't work, other than the imagined benefits of a placebo effect reaction reported by people who have tried them. But people who ascribe to, and sell, homeopathic remedies are not interested in scientific evidence. Why? To me, this is one of life's great mysteries. At your request, I can provide evidence of this research, or you may consult the following website which investigates a variety of pseudoscientific, including homeopathic, practices: www.randi.org.

I'm a psychologist, and I investigate these things because of the direct harm these types of practices do to people, and to our society as a whole. Despite any warning labels on bottles, people continue to substitute legitimate medicine (partially or fully) for junk such as homeopathy. Any warning labels you might provide on these bottles are not enough to protect people — so I ask you sincerely to please not choose this as an excuse for promoting such a product. It's really not enough.

My request is that you please remove homeopathic remedies from your shelves. Selling this stuff does real harm. If you have any doubts, I can provide further information on how selling these products is directly harmful to individuals and society. Again, please feel free to consult the provided website for specific examples and to verify the seriousness of my claims. I look forward to a reply on this matter.

He heard from a mysterious, androgynous entity known as "Red Elk," a "Store Team Leader" at Whole Foods, who had also informed Ebony Evans, Emily Hoglund, and Noelle Wagner of the same company, about Rob's concerns:

Hello Mr. Justice,

Thanks for writing and letting us know about your concerns. I cannot honor your request to remove homeopathic remedies from the store.

I will forward your concerns to our regional coordinator.

That's not much of a surprise; homeopathic "remedies" are big profit-makers. Bottling water or sugar pills is a cheap operation, and if there's a mystical song-and-dance involved along the way, who cares? Whole Foods will continue to offer diluted nothing to their customers, and everyone but Rob Justice will be happy. There was an assumption-of-integrity involved here, and that proved false. No "Regional Coordinator" or "Store Team Leader" will answer now, and the swindle will go on....


Reader Warren Rodgers reveals to us something that I'd not previously known or even suspected! This may account for certain "ghosts" we hear seriously reported! He writes:

Thanks a bunch for your 3/4/05 "Desert Illusions" Commentary regarding photographed "Orbs." I now have a concise illustrated explanation ready for those who say, "Oh yeah, then how do you explain THIS Photograph?"

It brought to mind, however, something I've noticed many are unaware of regarding digital as well as cellphone cameras: they are sensitive in the infrared region!

A fellow engineer recently complained he wasn't certain whether his infrared remote hand unit was defective, or whether the receiving piece of equipment was responsible for his problems. I promptly removed my camera-equipped cellphone from my hip. Aiming his remote at my cellphone's camera lens I saw a bright white blinking LED on my cellphone's screen and assured him his remote was outputting a strong signal. He was taken aback for an instant, but was quickly gratified when he realized that he too carried such a powerful piece of infrared troubleshooting equipment on his hip.

I guess you know where I'm going. One needs wonder how many digital camera "anomalies" might be related to infrared phenomena. Now, infrared phenomena coupled with compound lens reflections/refractions . . . . Oiy!

I was aware that an infrared control signal — as might be expected — showed up strongly on seeing-in-the-dark infrared video cameras, but this expands the phenomenon. Thanks, Warren! But when you write the following, I must object:

Using your technique of blowing cigar smoke in front of the digital flash camera just before taking a picture and illuminating it with the "Volume Up" function of my TV's remote hand unit, I produced a photo of my living room ceiling I'd like to think ABC would be pleased to air.

My personal stance on cigar smoke is that producing it should be a capital offense, and this was certainly never my "technique." However, I frequently note news photos taken in snowstorms producing those orbs that are so popularly found in cemetery photos. I asked Warren how he found out about this phenomenon.

How did I discover it? Well, in a previous career in the consumer electronics field, I wondered if there was not a better way to determine if an infrared hand remote was functional or not. I read a document explaining the bandwidth of CCDs and noticed it went well into the infrared band. When I got my first digital camera, I "played" with it. End of story. You played with yours, didn't you?

That's a personal question I'll ignore.... Warren also asks:

Another unexplained phenomenon: Do you know of anyone who can explain why I can hold my car's remote keyless entry fob to my chin and have its range tripled, or even quadrupled? Try it. Yeah, it works. Really!

There's the challenge for this week, folks. A cavity-resonance, antenna effect, or just what? Let us know your theories....!


The Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer's group, is looking for some volunteers to further the cause. They are coding the results of their recent survey of Skeptic magazine subscribers and non-subscribers. The results will allow them to attract more advertisers to the magazine, as well as to improve the magazine itself through reader feedback. Requirements for volunteers are: access to the Internet (any speed), a mailing address in the US or Canada, and three (or more) hours of time to volunteer over the next three weeks. If interested, please send an email to Matt Cooper at skepticsurvey@earthlink.net with just the following two pieces of information: (1) your mailing address and (2) how many hours you would be willing to give over the next three weeks. Your assistance on this project will be greatly appreciated!

The Skeptic Society's Annual Conference this year runs May 13th to 15th in Pasadena, California, and features a raft of academics who will discuss "Brain, Mind, & Consciousness." Our friend and author Dr. Susan Blackmore will be there from the UK as a speaker, and our favorite master of optical illusions, Jerry Andrus, will be set up to astound us, as he always does. I'm already packed! Go to www.skeptic.com to learn the details!

Incidentally, the director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, who was reported last week on this page as turning down an Imax film that offended creationists, has reversed his decision: the film will be shown, unedited. A step forward....


Josephina Chapman, of Calgary, Canada, gives us some of her personal philosophy:

Mr. Randi, if anybody tries to tell me that skeptics "don't believe in anything wonderful," here's what I would say to them:

This morning on my way to school, I noticed that Venus and Jupiter were both visible and very bright. I actually stopped several random strangers to point the planets out, and if anybody seemed interested enough I told them that if they go outside at around 8 or 9 o'clock tonight, they can spot Saturn, too. I think most of these people thought I was a little weird for coming up and telling them this out of the blue, but they were all glad I had.

Now, I can't speak for anybody but me, but I can't think of a lot of things you could believe in that are more wonderful than Jupiter. "Wonder" is exactly the word for what I feel when I look at the sky and know that I'm seeing across millions of miles to what's got to be one of the most beautiful objects in the universe. And it's even cooler to be able to show these things to people who say "wow!" and who will maybe tell somebody else about it later in the day. That sort of joy is a great thing to spread around!

I believe in Jupiter because I can see it, because a lot of other people whom I feel I have reason to trust have seen it, and because it always turns up right where and when it's supposed to. Anyone who thinks that somehow makes it anything less than wonderful is welcome to take a look at it through a telescope some time. If they can avoid feeling wonder at the sight, then they're the ones who should be pitied, not I.


Mark Fairhead, Director of "Team Penta UK," caused our collective JREF heart to throb wildly in anticipation when he wrote, "Who knows, perhaps we're edging closer to taking James' challenge up!" Disregarding the fact that Penta already agreed to "taking my challenge up" back in July of 2001 (see www.randi.org/jr/08-31-01.html) Mr. Fairhead has made here as definitive a statement as I've ever heard about this matter, with modifiers like "Who knows," "perhaps," and "edging closer" only slightly diminishing the excitement we feel at this imminent re-acceptance of the JREF challenge. We're all a-flutter!

Mark, you smooth talker, you! But I'll bet that your employers aren't talking to you so smoothly, since you've now put them back on the griddle by almost re-accepting the JREF challenge on their behalf...! That scares them!


April 1st is here, and it's time to give out the coveted Pigasus Awards in four categories for accomplishments of the year previous. As my readers will know, these are announced via ESP to the winners, who are of course allowed to predict their winning of this honor by precognition. The Flying Pig trophies are sent to the winners via psychokinesis. We send; if they don't receive, it's perhaps due to their lack of PK ability.

This year, the prizes for 2004 performances go to these lucky folks:

Category #1, to the scientist who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult: We vote for Dr. Rogerio Lobo, professor/chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. He co-signed a paper titled, "Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization-Embryo Transfer" published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM). It was written by Dr. Kwang Cha, once head of Columbia's fertility center, and a lawyer, Daniel Wirth, who had no medical credentials. The paper, incredibly, concluded that women in South Korea who had received in vitro fertilization were twice as likely to conceive if they had been prayed for by Christians who were thousands of miles away. Dr. Lobo's endorsement was largely responsible for the paper's acceptance for publication, then he revealed that actually he'd only "reviewed and edited" the material, having been asked to sign it well after the research had already been done and evaluated. Wirth, who has a 20-year legal record of fraud, has now been sentenced to five years in Federal prison for financial improprieties unrelated to the Columbia study. Columbia has quietly withdrawn the name of Dr. Lobo as the lead scientist of the project; he will make no comments to the media. The JRM still supports the study, and still carries the paper in their records.

Category #2, to the funding organization that supported the most useless study of a supernatural, paranormal or occult claim: We honor the United States Air Force Research Laboratory, who paid $25,000 to Dr. Eric W. Davis (PhD, FBIS) at a Las Vegas company called Warp Drive Metrics to study the "conveyance of persons by psychic means" and "transport through extra space dimensions or parallel universes." For their/our money, the USAF received a 78-page report, "Teleportation Physics Study," a mass of mathematical calculations and diagrams with much dissertation on "wormholes" and "parallel universes." An annual expenditure of some $7 million on this project was recommended by the report, since Warp Drive Metrics concluded that: "We are still very far away from being able to entangle and teleport human beings and bulk inanimate objects." Really? Who knew?

Category #3, to the media outlet that reported as factual the most outrageous supernatural, paranormal or occult claims: The prize goes to the film "What the #$*! Do We Know?," a fantasy docudrama cult hit supposedly about the "nature of reality." More than a dozen scientists, theologians and mystics appear. However, the product placement reveals that among the physicists, neurologists and academics who expound the film's thesis is "new age" icon J.Z. Knight, who claims to be channeling a 35,000-year-old god/warrior from Atlantis named Ramtha. The films' producers, writers, directors, and some of the stars are members of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment in Washington State. Several of the scientists are affiliated with Knight's school, and the film was largely financed by one of Knight's students. It's a blatant effort by religious, mystical, and New Age gurus such as Deepak Chopra to disguise their views as real science. Thrown in are the fantasies of Masura Emoto, who claims to have proven that thoughts can change the structure of water; his "experiments" consist of taping written words to glasses of water. (See www.randi.org/jr/052303.html) The "Maharishi Effect" — an equally vacuous notion, is also offered. A rampant example of abuse by charlatans and cults, it is still filling theatres all over the world.

Category #4, to the "psychic" performer who fooled the greatest number of people with the least talent: This craved category is won for 2004 by that persistently wrong psychic, prophet, seer, and visionary, Sylvia Browne. In July of 2004, Sylvia said that Osama Bin Laden was dead, but we've since seen a video released three months after that mentioning Bush and Kerry, proving when it was made. Wrong. (Remember that she'd also predicted that Saddam Hussein would be found dead before the end of 2003. Wrong.) In October of 2003 she said that Yellowstone Park would erupt between January and March of 2004. Wrong. We could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Ms. Browne easily wins this category, nails down.