April 11, 2003

More Attacks/Lies Launched, Megalogophobia, Einstein Wrong, Ephedrine Bombed, The Guardian & Science, Bogustry, More Fish, Remenance, 666=393, and "Dowser Brand" Water...

An astrologer in Denmark has demonstrated how eager the opposition is to accept anything and everything that appears to neutralize our position or work. From some un-named Internet source, here's an analysis of one tirade that's currently making the rounds. It begins by misrepresenting my involvement with tenured Professor Gary Schwartz, of the University of Arizona:

Schwartz voluntarily co-operated with Randi against his PR firm's advice, my advice, his lawyer's advice — and even after reading "sTARBABY" by Dennis Rawlins — an expose by one of the people involved in staging the CSICOPs replication of Michel Gauquelin's research on sports figures. Randi was one of the major players in that (fraudulent, or at least engineered "scientific" test.)

Wrong, on at least three counts. Schwartz appeared at the JREF in person, expressed his delight with a protocol that we outlined for testing the "cold readers" such as John Edward, agreed to use that protocol, and promised to send the JREF all the raw data that he thus obtained. That was long before he'd had the opportunity to consult with any PR firm, or anyone else. In any case, he then reneged on that promise, and we never received anything from him.

The misrepresentation of the CSICOP involvement in the Gauquelin matter has been discussed numerous times before, and that accusation is quite false. CSICOP's only fault there lay with the reluctance of astronomer George Abell to consider Rawlins as a competent authority on the subject of astrology, and they — and Abell, personally — apologized for that fact, quite adequately. There was certainly nothing "fraudulent" nor "engineered" on the part of CSICOP. In any case, the entire Gauquelin matter has faded into obscurity with the other bits of pseudoscience, having failed attempts at replication.

I was in no way a "major player" in that matter, in fact I was not involved in any way. The angry blurb continues:

Rawlins, a science writer, is not even mildly friendly to astrology, but he was outraged that the CSICOPs people rigged a supposedly objective scientific statistical project.� Schwartz believed he could convince Randi because he, Schwartz, was a tenured PhD and on the faculty of a major university. Schwartz considers himself a legitimate scientist, and that his research results should be treated as fact.� Randi, since he has himself rigged scientific tests, has no such scruples.

Why, oh why, would Schwartz think that his exalted position as a PhD at Harvard would make him any more convincing to me? Hey, Harvard has John Mack, too; that should put an end to that notion! And research results of a "legitimate scientist" are now automatically "facts"? Gee, folks, I guess we've all been laboring under a gross misunderstanding of the world around us! As for that canard that I have "rigged scientific tests," though I've repeatedly asked anyone to supply just one example of that, I've never been offered any. That doesn't stop the claim being made, because it's something that the believers dearly want to be true, though they can't find a case to cite�.

Randi subsequently contacted the University of Arizona and offered them (reportedly) one million dollars to turn over Schwartz's raw research data to Randi. The offer, but not exact amount, were on Randi's web site afterwards. Randi proceeded to savage Schwartz as a nut-case on his website, which is based in Canada.

No, wrong again. Schwartz (see above) had already agreed to supply the JREF with his raw data, then failed to do so — for reasons we can only wonder about. When it became clear that Schwartz's promise was empty, I then offered our million-dollar prize to the U of A if (a) they would supply the data that Schwartz had promised us, and if (b) that data provided evidence that Schwartz's case was legitimate. As we all know, the University simply said that they were not interested in the offer, which suggests that they knew just how bad the Schwartz claim was; that same week, their web site moaned that the University was in need of funding. Difficult to understand, I think.

Also, just to demonstrate how misinformed these folks are on even the most basic facts, our website is based in Florida, not Canada, and always has been. I've never had any other website, based anywhere, and I've never had any business or organization in Canada, ever.

To continue with the Comedy of Errors:

[Randi] is a stage magician who has latched on to a very nice publicity gimmick, debunking anything psychic, astrological, or "religious."� Gets him many TV appearances, which his talents would not otherwise offer.� His high-water mark as a performer was a magician stint on an early morning children's show, Wonderama.

Religion is not something the JREF pursues, because it offers no evidence that can be examined, so it's just a matter of blind, unsupported, faith. We do pursue claims of miracles and other religious wonders, when they present evidence, but not religion itself. Well before I was totally involved in investigating paranormal claims, I had already taken three world tours, had been a featured artist in theater and television in many different countries, and had appeared in literally hundreds of TV productions. My Wonderama appearances were worked in among Oprah, Donahue, the Tonight Show, Mike Douglas, and my other bread-and-butter work, all over the world. Wonderama was, in its way, an important connection — but hardly any sort of a "high-water mark."

He is a charter member of CSICOP, a militant athiest [sic] organization that was evicted from the Ethical Humanist society, when CSICOP activities engendered lawsuits that alarmed the "ethics" of the "humanists."

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. I am not a "member" of CSICOP, though I am one of the original founders. We separated years ago when I was told that I could no longer mention Uri Geller in my writings on behalf of CSICOP, so I opted not to go along with that admonition. CSICOP is not an atheist organization, and never was. Many members of CSICOP are religious folks, and have no problem with the goals of CSICOP. And, CSICOP was never part of the Ethical Humanist Society, so was never "evicted" at all. In fact, when I contacted the Chicago branch of the AES, the person I spoke with didn't even recognize the CSICOP name.

The published membership manuals of CSICOP suggested hosts of "dirty tricks" and other less than savory activity in order to promote their anti-psychic, anti-religious activities.� (If there is no higher power, what good is ethics, and why be ethical?)� They are an example of dis-belief being advocated with all the orthodoxy of a Talaban [sic] right down to and including thought-control of the general public.

I know of no "membership manuals" ever issued by CSICOP; this is sheer fiction. Keeping right up with current news, the angry, frustrated, opposition now drags in a comparison with the Taliban. Right in line with their standards, I'd say. As for those "dirty tricks," and the "less-than-savory" activities, where are the examples? Again, I've asked time and time again for the evidence, but they of course can't find any, preferring to accept tales they've heard because that serves their needs. That lack of proof doesn't stop them because it's something that they desperately want to be true, though they can't find a single case to hold up as evidence. I'm not at all surprised. And CSICOP, in common with other skeptical organizations, vigorously battles "thought-control," and encourages independent thought. This "thought-control" accusation is a perfect example of George Orwell's "doublespeak" from "1984." Big Brother is watching you�.

Dear reader, I did the above analysis to demonstrate for you just how purposely misinformed the grubbies out there, really are. They embrace and repeat the fiction at every opportunity. The Danish astrologer I referred to is one such individual, joining in the cacophony of screeches and strident appeals to action, all based on lies and inventions. All the corrections made above, were and are available — through the Internet and in other references — to that astrologer and to others who have chosen to perpetuate the lies, but they avoid doing this because they need the fiction to support their stance. Think about that the next time you hear or read a tirade directed at the JREF, CSICOP, the Skeptics Society, or any other group or individual that fights for sanity and rationality�.

Reader Julian Smith observes a few facts about astrology�.

I especially enjoyed your meditation on charlatans, and the facility they have for using scientific-sounding words to fox a largely ignorant public. Just an observation, but I found an echo of this in practically all advertising, especially cosmetics. ("Active liposomes," "micro-fruit acids," etc.)

Knowingly or not, the "psychics," astrologers, and the rest appear to be trying to tap into the same vein of megalogophobia (if you'll permit my neologism, the "fear of big words" that typifies the poor levels of scientific and critical literacy in most Western publics) that is very deliberately used by commercial interests to get us to buy more of their stuff.

It also occurs to me that some of the most flagrant such practitioners are astrologers, not one of whom managed to predict or detect the existence of Uranus or Pluto from their astrological effects, prior to their discovery by legitimate astronomers, but who have all now embraced them as part of their "sophisticated prediction techniques." I've even come across astrologers who claim to be able to take into account the effects of man-made satellites (say, the MIR space station) on events here on Earth. Were there any factual basis for this, of course, the PC I am seated in front of, or my car parked outside, would have an effect many times greater, but try telling them that! Perhaps the astronomers of the world could announce the "discovery" of a fictitious new planet, then reveal their deception once the astrologers have all started describing how the planet Nemo, being trine with Jupiter in Saggitarius (more jargon), indicates a visit from a stranger. But, doubtless they would all carry on as normal.

Maybe someday they'll all go back to the end-of-the-pier cubicles with all the other amusements — I don't anticipate they'll ever disappear altogether.

Julian, I agree with that last anticipation. The public will always need some nonsense in their lives, I'm sure, even if it goes back to living in tents. We just work at keeping it in check�.

It appears that old Albert was wrong, according to www.ultra-faster-than-light.com, where we learn of a new device that operates at faster-than-light speeds and are told such things as:

It will help restore the logical common sense reasoning in scientific communities thus allowing the progress of civilization to continue with out [sic] legacy of dark ages!

Einstein new [sic] that Doppler in Lorentz give asymmetric shifts, so he invented his own version of Doppler theory.

Also stretch the vertical signals on bough [sic] channels using the gain function.

This correspond [sic] to the signal propagation speed 7 to 15 times faster than speed of light!

According to Einstein it is not possible to accede [sic] the speed of light.

Depend on it, this guy will make millions. Buyers will skim over the gobbledygook and send in the check. They simply can't miss out on something so good!

From Bob Park's very provocative and informative regular column for the American Physical Society (you can get on that list by going to join-whatsnew@lists.apsmsgs.org), here's an interesting item, directly quoted:

The American Heart Association has joined the chorus calling for a federal ban on ephedra, a herbal stimulant linked to serious side effects including heart attack and stroke (WN 14 Mar 03). A spokesman for the powerful ephedrine industry snorted that a ban would be "irresponsible," since the allegations against ephedra had not been "proven scientifically." That's the problem, isn't it? Neither has ephedra been proven safe. As a result of the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA), the herbal market is totally unregulated: herbal products don't have to be proven safe or effective. But in the case of ephedra, the bodies are starting to pile up.

Bob's had serious problems with this startling and alarming fact that there are no rules governing "herbal" products. They don't have to be shown to be safe, or of any value whatsoever as a supplement or treatment! The quack industry thrives, people suffer as a result, and federal and state governments simply sit back with earplugs and blindfolds in place. They don't care, because any action on their part might annoy a voter. And you know what that can mean!

We're very happy to note that the UK newspaper, The Guardian, is teaming up with Nature Magazine — the prestigious UK science journal — to create a new section on coverage of science, on both editorial and advertising fronts, a full page of editorial material each week. To quote from their announcement of this innovation: "We hope to do something similar for the understanding and general culture of science in this country as the New York Times has done — and continues to do — in America."

As a good start, here's part of The Guardian's statement of what science is all about, and what they intend to do about it:

And so I give you my taxonomy of bad science, the things that make me the maddest. First, of course, we shall take on duff reporting: ill-informed, credulous journalists, taking their favorite loonies far too seriously, or misrepresenting good science, for the sake of a headline. They are the first against the wall.

Next we'll move on the quacks: the creationists, the new-age healers, the fad diets. They're sad and they're lonely. I know that. But still they must learn. Advertisers, with their wily ways, and their preposterous diagrams of molecules in little white coats: I'll pull the trigger.

And the same goes for the quantum spin on government science. I'm watching you all.

And finally, let us not forget the strays, the good scientists who have passed to the dark side. Was it those shares in that drug company, or the lust for fame and glory? Bad scientists, your days are numbered.

If you are a purveyor of bad science, be afraid. If you are on the side, of light and good, be vigilant: and for the love of Karl Popper, email me every last instance you find of this evil. Only by working joyously together can we free this beautiful, complex world from such a vile scourge.

A comment: the author specifies that "shares in that drug company, or the lust for fame and glory" are possible reasons for scientists to "go bad." True. But it's also a fact that often they aren't driven by such dishonorable factors; sometimes they just don't know any better, and are overcome by their own egos and ambitions. The names Mack, Benveniste, Schwartz, and Josephson spring to mind�.

When I mentioned this happy development to my good friend Martin Gardner (who will be 90 in October!) he expressed his hope that there wouldn't be a note at the bottom of The Guardian's new science page suggesting that the reader go to the next page for the latest horoscope�.

To give you some idea of the content of this new Guardian section, last week they discussed the dramatic increase of "psychic" advisors available to the UK public, mentioning in passing the embarrassing enthusiasm shown by Cherie Blaire, the PM's wife, for such flummery. Parapsychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, who has conducted research into all kinds of paranormal activity and found no supporting evidence, was quoted on the subject:

Most people who go to a medium or a spiritualist church have lost someone and want to find out that this person is okay. But everything I have seen, and the research shows, there is no evidence to back up their claims. There are lots of ways a medium can convince people they are in touch with a relative. They make general statements and then move to the particular, judging body language as they go, gauging the responses they receive. . . . While there are undoubtedly crooks about, I think they are, in the main, sincere people.

We'll be following this welcome Guardian feature, which you can monitor at: www.guardian.co.uk/life.

Reader Dave Lartigue notes:

In reference to this week's Commentary (4/4/03) I thought I'd comment about the concept of "preying on the weak" that you bring up.

There's a disturbing trend I see, even among people who claim to be skeptics. That's the thought that if people are foolish enough to pay for magic amulets, psychic advice, or advanced water, what's wrong with taking their money? After all, no one's forcing them to buy these silly things, so how is it wrong?

Of course, the same people would never think to blame a rape victim for dressing attractively, or the victim of a robbery for wearing a nice watch. Yet for some reason, committing fraud seems to be okay as long as the victim is somewhat gullible.

It bothers me to see otherwise intelligent people express these things. Fraud is fraud, whether the victim is intelligent or foolish. It's just plain wrong to sell a free energy device that doesn't work, even if the buyer thinks it does. If a person walks down a dark alley in a bad section of town late at night and gets mugged, perhaps he was acting foolishly, but it doesn't make the mugging "okay," Yet I constantly see skeptics argue that people who fall for scams or buy into paranormal bogustry are "just getting what they deserve."

So it's not just the bad guys who feel this way. An alarming number of "good guys" agree with them.

"Bogustry"? Gee, I like that word! Better that "bogusness," by far�.

Reader Paul Flewers of King's College, London, refers to that talking carp item (JREF commentary, 28 March 2003) telling us that it also appeared in British newspapers, and caused a good laugh there. He comments:

There is, however, a possible rational explanation. It appears that fish can retain air in their bodies when they are dead, and it can make a sound when it is expelled through the gills when they are being cut up. I know this from personal experience. Many years ago, my mother was preparing a trout for dinner, and when she pressed the knife down it to behead it, it squeaked, causing her to drop the knife and call out in alarm: "It's alive!" She quickly realized that the trout was solidly dead, and she proceeded to prepare it for dinner. We made some enquiries, and were told about the retention of air in dead fish. I bet this is what happened in New York with the "speaking carp," only the fish-cutters there were far more inclined than my mum to think that something supernatural had occurred.

Okay, but how that squeaking was interpreted to be Hebrew, and produced intelligible words, seems rather incredible. Wait! What am I saying? By now, I should not be underestimating the ability of humans to invent facts and interpretations. Mea culpa!

And here's Steve Meltzer again, with what I hope is the LAST of this fish story. He suggests two possible scenarios�..

1) The story may have begun to propagate on the Jewish holiday of Purim.� One of the aspects of this observance is similar to that of "April Fools Day".� This may have begun as a "Purim Torah" as it would be known, a comical teaching that is not intended to be understood as anything but an amusing tall tale.� As with April Fools stories, it may have taken in some credulous or unwashed folks and gotten a little out of hand.

2) The story may be based on an earlier tale originating in Vienna in the 18th or 19th century.� Many of the aspects of that legend are similar to this story, a fact that strengthens the theory above stated.� Obviously, these stories are amplified over time to emphasize the lesson, and the details of literal neatness become more irrelevant.

Alright, already! Enough! Let's do silly bird stories now�..

Reader Nathaniel Hefferman writes that in reading Julia Blackburn's book The Emperor's Last Island, about Napoleon's days on St. Helena, he came across a very interesting passage in which the author said:

I read an article about a retired accountant who uses a metal coat-hanger as a dowsing rod with which he can locate the exact position of the walls, windows and doorways of churches that fell down long ago and are now covered by grass and earth and forgetfulness.� Sometimes he might sketch out an area where stones and bricks should be lying, but when the archeologists come to dig they find nothing there.� This can be simply because he has made a mistake, but often it has turned out that he was locating a part of a building that had lain there concealed and undisturbed but was then dug up and removed many years ago.� This phenomenon, of finding the memory of something that has vanished and left no trace of itself, is called by dowsers, "remanence."

Nathaniel observes:

Apparently, the ground, like the homeopath's solution, can retain a "memory" of something that is no longer there.� And, of course, the "remanence" can provide a very nice excuse for all of the dowser's misses ("Of course I found water/gold/oil/whatever, here!� It's just not here any more!").

You're getting the hang of it, Nathaniel! That's exactly what the rascals do!

This claim by dowsers is so easily testable. I've challenged them to go to a location of my choice where they would be asked to plot out old ruin sites, but so far they've apparently been in fear of that remanence. Damn! Does it every time! Incidentally, the term "remanence," as with many terms adopted by the pseudoscientists, has a real meaning, as well. It refers to the magnetic flux left behind after an electromagnetic field has been turned off.

Never willing to be left out of the latest trends in scientific thinking and actions, New Mexico state lawmakers have set about exorcising Satan from the state, or at least from one of its highways. US 666 (ooooh!) so christened in the 1920s, is a tortuous 190-mile stretch of federal highway that runs north from Gallup, in western New Mexico. And it's obviously accursed and infested with demons, from its numerical designation, alone. Any fool can clearly see that. Now, the state has asked the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the agency that remedies such dreadful errors of reason, for a name change.

The wise New Mexico legislators, obviously using their best dictionary and a Gideon Bible, passed a resolution that cited the "cloud of opprobrium" that has been hanging over the road and the concern of some motorists that "the devil controls events" there. Not only that, but since U.S. 666 has an extremely high accident rate, says the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department, "We just don't want to be associated with this [number]."

Well, not to be outdone, the states of Colorado and Utah, into which US 666 continues as it leaves New Mexico, have eagerly joined in the action by asking Washington to designate a more innocuous number for the road: 393. It's a palindromic number, but that's all I can see there. Any other ideas, readers?

As I've mentioned previously, the work we do at the JREF suddenly becomes more important, and very worth while, when we receive a call or a letter from someone who has been positively affected by our efforts. One such letter arrived from 21-year-old reader Adam Marczyk, and it also contained observations on his view of the world as he now sees it. He gave us permission to share this with you:

I try to read and stay informed on as broad a range of subjects as I can, and to the devotees of superstition and pseudoscience, let me just say this: you don't know what you're missing. The universe is a grander, stranger, more majestic and more mysterious place than any human being has ever imagined, or can imagine. The unsubstantiated claims and inventions of people, as wondrous as you may find them, don't come close to doing justice to reality as it truly is. At what other age in human history have you been able to look on a shooting star or a volcano and know what it really is? In what other age has anyone been able to see the Earth rise in the night sky from the surface of the Moon? In what other age did we understand the molecular roots of life, the building blocks of matter, the power sources of the stars?

It was not crystals or prayer nor Tarot cards that brought us these things. It was not superstition that was responsible, nor mysticism, nor credulous acceptance of extraordinary and unverified claims. It is the scientific method — institutionalized skepticism, rigorously and comprehensively applied — that has given rise to these wonders of understanding and accomplishment. We can either stay on that path, and some day realize the full potential we've only begun to tap — or we can sink back into the darkness of unreason, and stay frightened, brutish, short-lived and ignorant. I know which path I choose to take.

Adam sent us this label of yet another "special" water that is being touted to us. Note the claim that dowsers are the "key to finding the purest water." Dowsers can't find anything, let alone the purest of anything. We've shown that, so many hundreds of times, that it's getting to be a bore. Hey, dowsers! Want a million bucks? Come and get it!


You must take a peek at www.comics.com/comics/getfuzzy to see how well cartoonist Darby Conley understands the working of the flim-flam mind, via his ugly cat, Bucky. Enjoy! And while enjoying, note that Bucky is applying exactly the right techniques and philosophy to his scam�.

I'll close with a story that reader Alan Kellogg sent me�.

A small town reporter went to talk with the town's busiest man one day. After the two talked for a bit the reporter asked, "How do you keep so busy?"

After some thought the gent replied, "I've thought about procrastinating, but I keep putting it off."

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