April 16, 2004
Our Italian Connection, Does It Ever Work Part Two, The Power of Adrenaline, Proving Gullibility, Imagined Forces At Work, Another Religious Test, Least Haunted Program, Imitating Nature, Give It Up Sylvia, She Outranks John & James, Now We Know Why, P&T On Geller, and In Conclusion….
Table of Contents:
Just last week, Reuters News reported a wildly popular and widely-distributed story about a series of spontaneous fires that had started in mid-January in the town of Canneto di Caronia on the north shore of Sicily in about twenty houses, they said. Even after electricity to the village had been cut off, the almost-daily fires continued to flare up. The usual expected crowd of scientists, engineers, reporters, TV crews, photographers, police, and even a few "ghostbusters" flocked to the town searching for clues to the "spontaneous combustion of everything from fuse boxes, to microwave ovens, to a car." There were reports that an air conditioner had burst into flames and burned up in thirty seconds, certainly a remarkable event. Police reported that they saw overhead electrical wires burst into flames. Fires consumed unplugged lamps and even an entire apartment. When Italy's big utility, Enel, cut off external electricity to the town and hooked it up to a generator, that equipment caught fire, as well! Cellular phones and cars also acted up, with lock- and alarm-systems firing off without any apparent reason, we're told. TVs and bathroom fans switched off and on spontaneously. Ooooh!
The scientific hypotheses ranged from a build-up of electrical energy caused by grounding wires running off the electric railway, to a rare "natural phenomenon" in which surges of electricity rise from the earth's core. In response to those possibilities, an assembly of instruments to monitor geomagnetic, meteorological, electromagnetic, and electrostatic indexes, were put in place, in the usual over-tech approach to solve similar mysteries. The mayor of the town was mystified. "Every time some new scientist comes to town, they arrive thinking the whole thing has been invented or that they're going to solve the mystery in two minutes. They've all been wrong," he said. Things got so active that the inhabitants of the town were evacuated after the regional government declared a state of emergency.
The Catholic Church's local exorcist arrived, and not to anyone's surprise immediately announced that Satan was at work. "I've seen things like this before. Demons occupy a house and appear in electrical goods," he said, urging the parish priest to take action. But the local priest, wiser than the exorcist, in my opinion, decided to let the scientists have a first try at solving the puzzle.
Our good friend Massimo Polidoro, head of the Italian Committee for the Control of Paranormal Claims (CICAP) went there to observe, and he soon ruled out demons or poltergeists. "The fact that the phenomena occur only when there are people present, makes it hard to believe that it is a natural, or even supernatural, situation," Massimo said. This stalwart investigator of bump-in the-night stuff shares his findings with us here, in an exclusive brief summary for JREF readers. He writes:
I recently had a chance to visit Caronia thanks to the editor of "Focus," a popular Italian science magazine, who asked me to investigate the case. While I was present, there was nothing exceptional happening in the small town. Actually, it's not a town at all, it's about 6 or 7 houses, where the 39 inhabitants are all related to one other.
The photo shown here of Polidoro in Caronia with one of the civil defense experts, is by Roberto Spampinato. The wide variety of weird events reported, were obviously occurrences that would have passed by as simple anomalies, had the town not been so "tuned" to demons or other mystical causes. Should there be more to this "mystery," we'll update you…. The whole full-length story by Polidoro with much more detail will appear in the upcoming issue of The Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2004 issue, pages 26-27. Are you subscribed….?
We continue now with Part Two of "Does It Ever Work?" from last week. You'll recall that our adventurer had gotten hooked up with a group of chaps who were trying to convince him of the efficacy of their "invention," a device that was essentially a simple dowsing rod. They told him that they had in the past found huge masses of smelted gold with it, but for various reasons were unable to actually take possession of it. Though he tried diligently to get it to work, he failed every time. His cohorts resorted to telling him about past successes:
They showed me a scrapbook of their activities. There was not one single photo of gold bars or gold coins. They had several pictures of artifacts they said they had recovered. These looked like photos of photos to me. One thing is clear, they have actually been to the dig sites they mention. Lots of pictures of them with the local Native Americans, pictures of Darryl in a ditch using a jackhammer, pictures of Pete operating a backhoe. I saw absolutely no photographic evidence of their finding gold. The thing about this is that they have clearly spent a lot of money; these trips have not been cheap for them. Renting heavy equipment is very costly. They apparently have financial backing, and according to all of them they've put in every last dime they have.
Weather It's too cold or too windy for The Locator to work properly.
To my knowledge there is no such thing as an ElectroMagnetic Intensity Aura (EMIA). Clearly, electromagnetic waves arise from certain chemical or nuclear reactions. And there is such a thing as electromagnetic intensity but it's a very general concept. For example, sunbathers are exposed to a moderate energy, an ultraviolet radiation field of electromagnetic intensity otherwise known as the Sun. In fact, The Locator emits a very weak field in the 5 kilohertz part of the electromagnetic spectrum. EMIA is a nonscientific invention of wishful thinking.
I thank our anonymous reader for this contribution. All names and locations in this two-part article were changed, for security reasons. If anyone still doubts that dowsers are absolutely unsinkable, go to http://members.aol.com/tbskep/Moore_chall_result.html and see the results of a test obtained by the Tampa Bay Skeptics right here in Florida, and after reading the first part, click on "Retest of Moore" at the end. Very revealing, and exactly in line with all of my extensive tests of this sort of claim.
Two points I should make, however: First, in all my own tests, I have an "open" or "baseline" period during which the claimant knows which container is which, and has to show that as a result of using his/her dowsing techniques, the identity can be established, every time. This gets around the complaints always made after failure, that conditions were not quite right for that test, since we see that there was no failure when the dowser was actually aware of the identities, but only during the "blind" part of the process. Second, I see no provision here for making those truly double-blind tests, which would have called for no one who had placed the targets, to be present during the attempt to identify the items. That's to avoid the possibility of anyone inadvertently giving away any answers.
Reader Leslee Green writes:
I would like to tell the fellow who found a device which enabled him to speak to the dead, that he's wasting his time with the device. No device is necessary all a person has to do is to just speak out loud to the dead. The trick is getting them to reply.
I was sent this example of a delicious hoax that the famous British astronomer Patrick Moore pulled on his very extensive radio audience back in 1976. He announced on BBC Radio 2 that at 9:47 AM, a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes. The planet Pluto, he said, would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped up in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation. When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room. Maybe slightly hyperbolized.…?
Think for a moment: this is another small example of how easily people will choose to "go along" with almost anything that is presented by the media, and gives them a chance to "get in" on a popular thing while it's occurring. Witness the number of people who used to phone in when Uri Geller appeared on radio or television and suggested to them that mysterious things would happen in their homes while he was "influencing" them even when he was being shown via videotape! Back in June of 1989, when we were preparing the "$100,000 Psychic Challenge" show in Los Angeles, we needed to demonstrate this "go-along" effect, so we took Massimo Polidoro Italy's answer to psychic nonsense, mentioned in our opening item this week to a San Diego radio station. He posed as a psychic and told listeners to call the station if and when strange happenings occurred in their homes. We were swamped by responses; one woman reported that a chandelier fell down, others said that their pets were disturbed, and several reports were made about spoons bending and dishes breaking. Our point was well proved.
An anonymous reader submits:
I admit am not as well versed in science as I should be, but I do know when to at least question what people tell me. And I just got out of a marketing meeting that had me rather surprised on two points. I work with two clients otherwise intelligent people who are husband and wife, and during my last meeting with them some rather "woo-woo"-oriented discussion occurred something that has not happened to me in a business setting before. The clients were talking about computers. They will soon be traveling abroad, so they'll be bringing their laptops along. All normal.
Where does it say that I'm not….?
I have often had people ask me, "If you don't fear Hell, why would you live a moral life?" This is just about the most insulting, patronizing, demeaning, question that can be asked. It implies and assumes that without fear of dreadful retribution, anyone will steal, rob, murder, lie, or do anything at all, to benefit the self. This presumption is reflected in a note sent me by a reader, quoting from the Constitution of the State of Tennessee:
Article 1, Section 4: That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this state, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state.
But then later in Article 9, Section 2:
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
My italics. Scary. Seriously scary.
Reader Jez Wood, in the UK, writes:
I am writing to you about a program which is shown over here entitled "Most Haunted." It's hosted by a lady whose name is Yvette Fielding. The executive producer is of the same name, and there is also a camera assistant who's name is Rick Fielding. All a coincidence I'm sure, but nonetheless interesting.
Now then, the "resident spiritualist medium" is a one Mr. Derek Acorah, who will need no introduction to you, I'm sure. He is a flamboyant, camera-friendly man and it has to be said, should he wish to attempt acting, one feels he would do very well. Just a personal observation, you understand. He's been possessed by spirits of the dead on numerous occasions. During one of these possessions, the intruder was asked by a member of the crew, "Who is on the throne at the moment?" This was referring to the supposed date of earthly existence of the offending spirit. The hesitant response by the spirit/Mr. Acorah, was a very aggressive and curt, "Find out yourself!" Hmm, once again, purely a personal view, but, has someone not finished their homework?
It seems that during one episode, Yvette Fielding felt a pinch, and Derek Acorah was quick to attribute it to the spirit of a little girl named "Rosemary." You see, these "sensitives" can pick up on such matters much more quickly than we mere mortals can. Derek, you rascal, you!
I sense unhappy sponsors beating on the doors, and producers cudgeling their brains trying to figure out what has happened to the inhabitants of Never-Never Land. Thanks, Jez. Jez has a follow-up report that we’ll see next week….
We ran a piece on elephants using very-low-frequency (VLF) modes of communication. A reader refers us to http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/c3i/vlf.htm where we're reminded that modern military systems submarines are now using VLF radio signals because they travel such long distances. The problem has been two-fold. First, it takes a huge-sized antenna for such a system to be at all efficient, and the rate at which data can be transmitted is rather small. Elephants apparently don't have very complicated messages to handle….
Hot flashes from Sylvia Browne, prophecies for the year 2004! Note that number 4 has already bitten the dust, and numbers 2 and 3 are "way up ahead….
1. Pope John Paul II will not live beyond 2005.
Let's just see how well Sylvia performs, in this prediction business where she flounders regularly but never discovers that she’s really bad at this game. Numbers 1, 7, and 9 are rather likely to be fulfilled, of course. I recall how many times "seers" like Jeanne Dixon predicted that Rose Kennedy would die, and that lady frustrated them by staying on to the age of 105. Number 7 is right in the middle of hurricane season for Florida, so that's pretty safe. Alaska is very prone to earthquakes, as is Japan, and since about 1,300 quakes of magnitude 6 take place every year, her number 9 is also pretty safe.
But number 10 has me puzzled. Sylvia, you said that Saddam would die last year, didn't you? Is he replacing Rose Kennedy?
While we're on that subject, reader Andrew Feist notes:
I don't know if you're familiar with www.crank.net, but it is a sort of gateway into the crackpots that inhabit the Internet; all the sites are rated, from "fringe" to "illucid," as well as some labeled "parody."
An interesting site. Take a peek.
A reader named "Justin" has sent me this latest version of one classic way of escaping reality. Talk about patronizing! These folks confidently declare their lofty thoughts from a lotus position, and adopt a what-me-worry grin as they put me in my place:
Everyone and everything has its place and purpose in this universe as do you and your purpose. However I would like to bring this concept to your attention. The people with real spiritual power (or "psychic" abilities) would NEVER take your challenge. In fact the more a person evolves spiritually, and the more powers Divine Providence bestows on said person the LESS they appear in the public eye. In other words those people out there who are truly spiritual and have true divine powers look at your challenge and laugh. Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying what you are doing is wrong. In fact you are a blessing in disguise! Anyone who tries to take the challenge is already outed themselves as a fraud, thereby showing others who is true and who is false. So thank you James Randi.
No wonder the inhabitants of the loony bins do a lot of laughing. I'm of course happy to provide their entertainment. Just think for a moment, how frustrated and desperate such an individual is, to resort to this sort of rationalization. Hey, what else has he got? Pass the lotus….
From a recent article quoting Penn & Teller in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The closest thing to a lawsuit last season [of Bullshit!], Jillette says, was a letter from the attorneys of psychic spoonbender Uri Geller, a longtime target of Penn and Teller's nightclub act. The letter threatened a suit if they mentioned him on "P&TB" but, Jillette says, Showtime had already vetoed their idea for a program on Geller on the grounds that he was old and barely remembered. When the letter finally got to us, somebody had written over Geller's name, 'Who IS this?'" chortles Jillette.
Stuart Bennett informs me that Charon did not ply the Styx, but the Acheron, river. I consider it all moot, because I looked up Charon and found out he was mythical, anyway. Who can you trust? Beware Greeks bearing gifts….?
Re last week's Martin Gardner item, I received a storm of responses about the puzzles presented there. Reader Kale Ganann was first, and correct.
The "quite obvious" "next highest" number above 370 that's the sum of the cubes of its own digits, is 371. Now, that's a perfect example of what Martin calls an "Aha!" which means something that seems so obvious, once you've been told…. The other two numbers are 153 and 407. Some readers suggested zero, which is of course quite correct, but among mathematicians, I'm told, that's so obvious that it's not included, by unwritten agreement.
Added note: Troublesome reader Peter Morris, in the UK, wrote me:
Ah, but the expression "next highest" actually means lower. Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and K2 is the next highest. Right?
I immediately fought him, but then thought better of the matter, and called Martin. At first, he agreed with me, but then we both came around. Several other persons I called, opined that that my original was correct, but now I'm with Peter. Il a raison. I wrote him:
I asked for "next highest," which implies "next to highest," but I should have said, "next higher." Do you agree?
I'm sure that many of you found sites on the Internet that answered those number questions for you as well as the anagram one, up ahead a maneuver which I find just a bit un-kosher…. One such site is: http://www.ssynth.co.uk/~gay/anagram.html
The upside-down version of 370 if any of you missed getting that is the Spanish "ole" the equivalent of "bravo," both of which are accompanied by an exclamation point, the former with another one in front, similarly upside-down: "¡Ole!"
As for the anagram formed from "PICTURES," there are actually three, the last two of which were new to me:
PIECRUST CUPRITES CREPITUS
In Webster's Dictionary, the first appears hyphenated as, "pie-crust," but in the OED, it's "piecrust." The second is a group of cuprous [copper] oxide (Cu2O) minerals, and "crepitus" is an interesting medical word with two meanings that appear in the OED with none in Webster's. It's either a rumbling or rattling sound produced by probing of the body by a physician in a body area where air is collected, or the "passing of wind." I'm sure this is much more than you wanted to know, inquiring mind or not…..
That was a fun project. And, as usual, you readers amplified and enriched the subject. What a powerful means to have working for us! Thank you!
Next week, we'll look into FATE Magazine, examine the Glowing Tombstone, and learn about Earth Acupuncture, among other exciting subjects…..!